A Lesson From the Campaign Trail: Good Leaders Need to Be Great Storytellers

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Written By Mario Moussa and Derek Newberry

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. As the presidential campaigns have now pivoted from the conventions to the fall elections, you might be scratching your head about a tale of two countries. In Trump’s telling, America is a nation in decline that needs a turnaround. Clinton sees a leading world power that should continue on the positive trajectory created under the Obama administration. We will leave it to the political pundits to debate which story is accurate. But as business school professors who specialize in the human side of organizations, we can say that the Clinton campaign’s story is more compelling and will give a bigger boost to her candidacy come November.

At this point, you might be thinking that elections are really all about pocketbook issues and politicians’ stories are just a bunch of fluff. We have a different point of view: hard-nosed policies and strategies are worthless without a good story. Whether people realize it or not, they think in stories. The best communicators know this and make the most of it.

Storytelling: The Crucial Leadership Skill

A famous experiment by two psychologists in the 1940s 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 and a jealous father protecting his daughter, others saw different dramas. The imagined scenarios differed, but what they had in common was that nearly all of the subjects told a story about the shapes without any prompting. Why are stories so pervasive? Because they are how people make sense of their environment and get along with co-workers or fellow citizens.

The most brilliant policy can 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. Far from fluff, good story-telling is a crucial leadership skill for motivating commitment and moving a strategy from abstract idea to action. Hence the importance of the two recent political conventions. Like an annual corporate retreat, their purpose is not only to explain a specific policy platform but also to tell a story that motivates and guides those who need to carry it out.

In this respect, we think Clinton is in a stronger position as she goes into the fall campaign. She does three things especially well. And the next time you need to get your point across, you should remember them:

Create empathy

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 who is overcoming a struggle. This can make even an 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 recently, he stumbled again by referring to the jobs he has created as one of his “sacrifices.” Clinton 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 deeply about the service part. 

Paint a picture

If you boil any rom-com movie down to its most basic elements, they are all pretty much the same: beginning, middle, and end. In other words, every story starts with a typical everyday situation, which is then disrupted by some new or unusual event, which sets in motion of series of actions that lead to a resolution and a 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 misses the mark. When his family talks, their speeches provide a great opportunity to show the candidate’s lighter side. While the Trump clan mentions plenty of great qualities, their speeches are light on anecdotes that would help us visualize how he lives these values in his everyday life. By giving details about Hillary’s personal life, such as how she met Bill or how she stayed connected to Chelsea while on the road, the Clintons paint a more compelling picture of the Democratic candidate’s values.

Make the audience your hero

As speaking coach Nick Morgan reminds us, every story has a hero and 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 rockstar 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 “I 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.

Far from fluff, 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.

Dr. Mario Moussa and Dr. Derek Newberry are the authors of Committed Teams: Three Steps to Inspiring Passion and Performance. Dr. Moussa teaches in the Executive Programs at Wharton School of Executive Education. Dr. Newberry is a lecturer at the Wharton School. Connect with Dr. Moussa at www.moussaconsulting.com, and with Dr. Newberry via Twitter, @derekonewberry.

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