“A long career in politics, if you’re doing it right, it’s about storytelling”

John Kerry to the Guardian, October 2020.

Last night was election night in America. Polling day for what might be the most contentious Presidential election ever – at least in US terms. 

Donald Trump won 4 years ago by telling a good story – that as an outsider he could “drain the swamp”, bring real change to Washington and improve the lot of many in America who felt left behind. Trump has spent a lot of time telling stories – spinning conspiracies about Barack Obama’s true birthplace or Hillary Clinton’s emails – and in doing so has ushered in a new eon of political action – the post-truth era. And politics is forever changed.

But he certainly wasn’t the first politician to use stories (truthful or otherwise) to win an election. The narrative around Obama in 2008 – “Yes we can” – was as potent as “Make America great again.”  Both stories have a strong emotional message – “Yes we can” offering optimism and hope for the future, while MAGA is about nostalgia and reclaiming lost glory from the past. 

Storytelling in politics is always intended to evoke emotion in the audience – a candidate could win a following by showing how a team can come together and overcome any odds (“Win one for the Gipper.”) or could take the darker route of creating fear and shifting blame onto some targeted “other” (pretty much any extremist group).

A good story can even convince an electorate to act against their own best interests, or at least muddy the waters – Republican rebranding of the popular Affordable Care Act into the hated Obamacare led to 35% of people not realising they were the same policy, and confusion was even higher amongst low earners who could be the worst affected if the act was repealed. 

Politicians know how to harness the power of storytelling, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to see how many ex-politicians are becoming content creators. The Obamas signed a much publicised deal with Netflix in 2018. And former presidential candidate and Secretary of State John Kerry talked to the Guardian recently about working with a production company to create impactful fictional content, saying:

“Historically, there are these moments where you tell a story the right way, it has enormous impact.”

So what lessons can the business world take from political storytelling? 

Firstly, that the power and influence of a good story can win people over more than facts and figures. This lesson can be clearly seen in the Brexit referendum – Remain may have had facts and logic on their side, but Leave had by far the better story.

A second point to consider is the value of using popular cultural references your audience recognise and understand – Reagan’s use of George Gipp worked as well as it did because ex-movie star Reagan had actually starred as Gipp in a 1940 movie many of his voters would have seen.

Thirdly and finally, align the story with the emotional reaction you want to elicit. Personally I always prefer to aim for positive emotions, as I think the negative ones can be dangerously unpredictable and also less effective – Yes we can generated a far higher election turn out than MAGA, even if both won their own day. Positive emotions can have a wider impact too – inspiration is far more uplifting than fear, which is generally restrictive.

While we wait to see how exactly the 2020 Presidential election will turnout (counting all those postal ballots and the like) it’s worth considering the stories both candidates tell. Trump is still using the rhetoric of an outsider railing against the establishment – a dangerous choice for literally the most powerful man in America, while Joe Biden has managed to unite a lot of the left behind him by describing himself as a transitional candidate who just wants to fix things. Who will win the day remains to be seen, but it is certain that anyone who wants to occupy the Oval Office in the future will have to have impressive storytelling skills alongside all of their other qualifications.

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