Conventional wisdom holds that elections are really all about pocketbook issues, and that politicians’ narratives are a bunch of fluff. We beg to differ: Hard-nosed policies and strategies are worthless without a good story.
In the 2016 presidential election, the candidate who controls the narrative controls the campaign. Hillary Clinton’s recent pneumonia diagnosis feeds Donald Trump’s story that she is a secretive politician who disdains the public eye. He and his surrogates are currently stepping into the vacuum of her absence by spreading conspiracy theories about her allegedly poor health.
This could gain steam, or Clinton could take control by opening up and flipping Trump’s narrative on its head. While the outcome is unclear, we believe it is likely that Clinton will bounce back, since her campaign understands the most important principles of storytelling.
Voters have been scratching their heads over the course of the general election campaign, constantly hearing a tale of two countries. In Trump’s telling, America is a nation in decline that needs a turnaround. Clinton, however, sees a leading world power that should continue on the positive trajectory created under the Barack Obama administration.
The political pundits can debate which story is accurate. But as business school professors who specialize in the human side of organizations, we believe that the Clinton campaign’s story is more compelling and will give a bigger boost to her candidacy come November.
Consider a famous experiment by two psychologists in the 1940s, which showed subjects a short clip of two triangles and a circle moving around and asked them to describe what they saw. Where some described a bully terrorizing two children or a jealous father protecting his daughter, others saw different dramas. The imagined scenarios differed, but nearly all of the subjects told a story about the shapes—without any prompting.
Stories are pervasive because they help people make sense of their environment and get along with coworkers or fellow citizens. The most brilliant policy will fall flat if it is not communicated with a strong narrative that makes it real and compelling for the people who are supposed to implement it.
In this respect, we think Clinton is in a stronger position than Trump. When communicating, she does three things especially well: creating empathy, painting a picture, and making the audience the hero.
In any good story, the audience should empathize with the main characters. According to screenwriter Robert McKee, the key to creating empathy is to portray a character overcoming a struggle. This can make even a seemingly unsympathetic person relatable. Steve Jobs wasn’t known for his humility, but his story about returning to Apple after having been pushed out is one we can all root for.
Trump has been focused on communicating his greatness, but not on talking about overcoming hardships to get there. Just this July, he stumbled by referring to the jobs he has created as one of his “sacrifices.” Clinton, on the other hand, creates empathy by acknowledging that she struggles with the “public” part of public service—that is, the aspect of it that involves public speaking. She deftly turns this weakness into a strength by recounting how she pushes through it because she cares so deeply about her work.
Every romantic comedy film starts with a typical situation that is disrupted by some new or unusual event, which then sets in motion a series of actions that lead to a resolution and return to normalcy. So what separates a classic like Annie Hall from a flop like Gigli? The difference is in the detail. Good stories use vivid imagery to make abstract ideas feel real and bring the audience along.
On this count, Trump also misses the mark. When his family members speak publicly, they fail to deliver anecdotes that would help voters visualize how Trump exhibits his positive qualities in his everyday life. Though all of Trump’s children spoke at the Republican National Convention, they generally gave generic examples of their father urging them to challenge themselves—not exactly the material of an illuminating biography. By giving details about Clinton’s personal life, such as how she met Bill or how she stayed connected to her daughter, Chelsea, while on the road, the Clinton campaign paints a more compelling picture of the Democratic candidate’s values.
As speaking coach Nick Morgan reminds us, every story has a hero. When you need other people to help you get things done, you are likely to get more buy-in if you put them in the starring role. Think of how rock star Bono has driven support for his ONE campaign by imploring: “We can be the generation that ends poverty.”
This is why Trump’s declaration that he alone can fix the political system is perhaps the weakest moment of his speeches. Clinton, by contrast, hits on the theme of becoming “stronger together,” making voters the heroes of her campaign’s story.
Stories are a critical execution tool. On the campaign trail and in the boardroom, they help leaders communicate strategy, rally support, and guide implementation. Republican strategist Mark McKinnon, who headed up communications for the George W. Bush campaigns, once said that the successful candidate is the one who tells the better story. So far, by this measure, Clinton is pulling away from her opponent.
Mario Moussa and Derek Newberry are the authors of Committed Teams: Three Steps to Inspiring Passion and Performance. Dr. Moussa teaches at the Wharton School of Executive Education. Dr. Newberry is a lecturer at the Wharton School.