The magic of connection with Steve from Blues Clues.
How does he do it?
How does Steve from Blues Clues connect so quickly and authentically through the camera?
Enable 3rd party cookies or use another browser
I can now tell you from personal experience that he doesn’t need the camera. I had the pleasure of attending Steve Burns’ keynote at the Learning Solutions Conference in Orlando last week. He made me feel ALL THE FEELS, and I’ve never watched Blues Clues!
Steve was a humble, gracious, engaging speaker and the best keynote I’ve seen in years. He didn’t have a big flashy intro. He didn’t show clips of his work. He just walked on stage, admitted how nervous he was and told us the story of how he did what he did on television when he was 23 years old.
The original Blues Clues (which has since been rebooted with Steve as executive producer) debuted in 1996. The show was designed as an educational program for preschoolers. That means the target audience is now in their early 30s. Based on the response Steve got from the LSCon crowd, they certainly haven’t forgotten him and the lessons he taught them through that pre-internet TV camera. It’s also clear that Steve hasn’t forgotten them either, despite having never met most of his audience in person.
I went into his keynote expecting a fun, nostalgic story about children’s television. What I got was a 60-minute nonstop stream of “real real” life lessons from the guy in the green striped shirt who used to play with a make-believe puppy and “froke out” when the mail arrived.
Here are my favorite insights from Steve.
Be open to happy accidents. 📺
Steve didn’t set out to be the host of a children’s TV show. He went to college to become a serious actor - a hybrid of Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino by his account. Blues Clues was Steve’s third audition after arriving in New York during his sophomore year. He thought it was a voice-over gig and wouldn’t have gone if he’d known he would be on camera. Skill, timing and luck made Steve an accidental educator to millions of children around the world.
Find your thing. 🎥
Steve thought he bombed the audition. Once he realized it was an on-camera job, he decided to “act the hell out of this thing.” He got unnecessarily close to the camera as he asked the invisible audience to answer a question. Then, he forgot his next line. This made him pause for an awkwardly long time and stare deeply into the lens as he searched for the next thing to say. That pause became Steve’s thing - his unique ability to listen deeply to the audience. As Mr. Rogers said, “Our engagement in listening to who that person is can often be our greatest gift.”
Thanks for reading ECOSYSTEM by JD! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Know your audience. 👶
Steve almost didn’t get the job because the network wanted someone “more classically handsome.” Thankfully, the executives listened to their target audience: preschoolers. They ran focus groups where kids watched sample footage with different hosts. The handsome guy failed to get their attention. When Steve asked for their help, the kids crawled over one another to get to the TV. As he put it, “these kids must have thought ‘clearly this strange little man needs our help!’” Steve continued to mirror his audience in his on-screen delivery, making it a peer-to-peer conversation. Since kids are constantly moving around, Steve acted like he always kinda had to pee.
Talk to one person. 💬
Blues Clues was watched by 13.7 million people in 60 countries every week. Despite the size of his audience, Steve decided that he was speaking with just one person through the camera: Carl Zeiss. Who’s Carl Zeiss? He’s the founder of a German manufacturer of optical systems and optoelectronics. They make camera lenses. Carl’s name was printed on the inside of the lens. When Steve was asking kids which shape was a triangle, he was reading the print inside the lens. This trick helped give the impression that Steve was looking at YOU, not just into the camera.
Give attention instead of just accepting information. 👀
“Everyone wants to feel seen. Everyone wants to feel heard.” How often do you get the feeling the person “listening to you” is just waiting for their turn to speak? Making someone feel seen and heard requires more than passive listening. It requires effortful attention. The energy needs to go both ways. Remember: information + attention = understanding.
Why do 30 year-olds still talk to Steve like they were childhood friends? It’s not just because he entertained them or taught them important lessons. It’s because they wondered together. Steve defines “wonder” as “anticipation with a little joy.” Wonder creates a profound desire to share and to know. It sets the foundation for learning. If you want people to engage, provide more opportunities to wonder.
It’s OK to ask for help. 🤝
Steve spent six years and 100 episodes asking children for their help solving puzzles on Blues Clues. “It’s not only OK. It’s totally cool to ask for help.” Steve always looked forward to those moments on the show when he asked the audience for help. Years later, Steve the person took a lesson from Steve the character when he sought help for depression. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a demonstration of strength.
If you’d like a taste of my Steve Burns experience so you too can feel ALL THE FEELS, watch this viral Twitter video from the 25th anniversary of Blues Clues.
Steve shared that this was shot in two takes and without a script. They couldn’t use the first take because he started crying. Then he brought the entire crew to tears during the second take.
How can you apply the magic of Steve from Blues Clues in your work?
Until next week, be well. JD