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Buying Beer and Choosing the Next President Are More Alike Than You Think

Jul. 02 2019

Storytelling is as old as basic human interaction, and never more relevant than when employed during a modern American presidential campaign. A candidate’s ability to captivate viewers, Twitter followers and the connected public with an effective story will be what separates winners from losers now through November 2020. Conveying wonder, wisdom and delight through storytelling is what delivers results in the form of voters staying home or turning out—never mind making a specific choice in the voting booth.

Sure, it’s easy to get tied up in analyzing poll data or, worse, overanalyzing candidates’ resumes, legislative decisions, offhand comments, wardrobe choices or the number of corndogs consumed at state fairs. But it’s storytelling that ultimately makes the difference. To understand why, it’s worth comparing the presidential campaign to America’s other outsize, attention-dominating fascination: Super Bowl ads

Psychological research examining Super Bowl commercials has shown definitively that the ads structured in story form—with a beginning, middle and end, peppered with conflict and resolution—are significantly more memorable. Brands know this. Anheuser-Busch, for example, doesn’t expect you to run out and buy beer at halftime. It’s about sowing recall. The company knows that if it tells an effective story in 30 seconds, the next time you’re walking past the beer section in the supermarket you’re more likely to experience a sudden urge to buy Bud Lite.

Great storytelling opens our minds so as to inspire action at a critical moment. Few candidates in recent memory have understood this concept better than Donald J. Trump.

Regardless of your political leanings, during the 2016 campaign Trump was as seasoned a storyteller as the American public has willingly tuned in to watch in quite some time. He commandeered attention and held it, like the effective marketer he is, such that just enough voters trusted him. Through storytelling he shared a vision of the joy of living in “his” America.

The way he weaved tales followed a simple, tried-and-true formula: One, start by creating recurring characters (Little Marco, Lyin’ Ted, Crooked Hillary); two, generate a flurry of repeatable, even outrageous sound bites, on air and online (among them the infamous, antisemitic image of Hillary Clinton with a Star of David and the commentary, “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!”); three, make big promises that are easy to grasp, such as having successfully built an ice rink in New York’s Central Park and tying that to saving jobs in coal country.

By the first Tuesday in November 2016, busy, attention-span-limited, semi-interested swing voters entered the booth and experienced recall as they faced a subconscious choice, just as if they were cruising by the beer cooler in the store, and were drawn to the cases of Bud Lite:

Do I pull the lever for the business tycoon who told stories of how he got the job done building a hotel in a post office, or the lifetime politician who suggested I visit her website for more information on her plans and policies?

Of course, not everyone exercised this behavior—but enough people did to tip the balance. And they voted the way they did because of another key Trump tactic: Effective storytelling also requires understanding that how the story is told matters as much as the story itself.

That is, authenticity is essential. And it’s best conveyed when providing the audience with wonder, wisdom and delight.

Wonder is, put simply, the opposite of boredom. Wisdom is providing useful, relatable information (accuracy and truthfulness don’t necessarily matter, as we know all too well). And delight is the ability to inspire around an aspirational idea or set of ideas, so as to strengthen the relationship with one’s audience. Packaged together and delivered just so, stories become not only absorbable and memorable, but shareable—in person or online, even in Tweet form. Remind you of anyone?

As the circus of selecting a Democratic nominee builds to its usual Super Tuesday crescendo, it’ll be more important than ever for candidates to understand the power of effective storytelling in all media, short and long, on camera and off. A couple in particular already do.

In Group SJR’s Strategic Storytelling Index, Senator Cory Booker showed the strongest performance in campaign launch videos. But in the first debates’ closing statements, it was Senator Bernie Sanders and Mayor Pete Buttigieg who resonated with Democrat, Republican and independent voters alike.

This isn’t just preliminary armchair quarterbacking. Now is the time for candidates to measure and master their storytelling skills, because come November 2020, the nominee will be matched against one of the most effective storytellers the American voting public has ever met.

Storytelling generates recall, and recall ends with a result. Like that collective result or not, the best storyteller will win. And either the left or the right will clank Bud Lites and say cheers.

To learn more, check out the Strategic Storytelling Index.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore, June 2019.