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Rising to the Moment with Storytelling

Dec. 20 2019

Impeachment controlled the national conversation heading into the sixth Democratic presidential debate. And with the holiday break on the horizon, the question was whether the debate could deliver a welcome diversion. The answer is definitely. With a slimmed-down, seven-person stage, the dialogue and criticism throughout proved meaningful and was often more effectively processed than previous debates. And from a storytelling perspective, the debate sparked memorable moments from candidates who were either under fire or had been written off.

Specifically, Senator Amy Klobuchar, Andrew Yang, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg all leveraged effective storytelling at opportune moments and ultimately successfully contrasted their candidacies with the rest of the field. Whether under attack (Buttigieg) or mostly ignored (Klobuchar and Yang), these three candidates rose to the occasion, providing ample doses of wonder, wisdom, and delight to the audience.

Storytelling Under Fire

At the front end of the pack, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has consistently embraced the dramatic: launching a presidential campaign with untested national experience as the young mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and rising with stunning speed to the top of the Iowa polls. As a result, Buttigieg found himself under attack more than once in this debate. However, his responses in the most crucial moments were noteworthy.

In one of the most relevant exchanges of the evening, Buttigieg responded effectively to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s attack on him for holding a high-dollar fundraiser in a wine cave. “Senator, your net worth is 100 times mine,” he pointed out, then turned the attention to Warren’s own history of fundraising among millionaires and billionaires. Simultaneously, Buttigieg was able to cement the story of his own earnest rise and open cracks in Warren’s.

Just as interesting was how the other candidates sought to capitalize on the moment.

Storytelling From Behind

Yang, for one, is aware that he can’t hold back when he gets screen time. As in previous debates, Yang spoke nearly 10 minutes less than the top speaker. But when he did have the microphone, he delivered memorable remarks. In perhaps his strongest appeal, he told a poignant story about his family and his child with special needs and tied this to larger challenges in the economy, the central theme of his candidacy. He connected his story to how Democrats can win the election by redefining economic progress to include the things that matter the most but are often overlooked, such as health, well-being, and children. Landing the plane, Mr. Yang reminded the audience: “Special needs is the new normal in this country. … We have to stop confusing economic value and human value.”

Similarly, Senator Klobuchar didn’t let her polling position stop her from highlighting her qualifications and contrasting her story with that of ascendant Mayor Pete Buttigieg—who has never won a statewide election as she has. She then elevated her track record as a lawmaker, pointedly explaining to Mayor Buttigieg (and perhaps his supporters) how her experience as a U.S. Senator sponsoring and cosponsoring bills has helped prepare her for the Presidency. “I just think you should respect our experience when you look at how you evaluate someone who can get things done,” said the Senator. By delivering both substance and a solid electability argument in story form, Klobuchar made a strong argument for her appeal to the broader electorate.

The lingering questions of the night: Will either Yang or Klobuchar be able to translate powerful debate storytelling performances into polling momentum? Will Buttigieg be able to use effective storytelling to deflect attacks and separate himself from the pack in the future? We’ll learn the answers as the number of podiums on the debate stage thins.