Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Tell It Better: Campaign storytelling and the Whistlestop podcast

A popular Democrat who was urged to run, but took too long to make up his mind. A candidate all the media thought was invincible, a juggernaut who didn't need to get into the substance, just attack his opponent. Another Democrat who used localized data to connect better with voters, pushed by a much more liberal campaigner on one side and a Republican widely assumed to be in the lead on the other.

Maybe you think I'm talking about Joe Biden, Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton. But no: I've been listening to the Whistlestop podcast with John Dickerson, which takes historical dives into U.S. presidential history. So those were references to Mario Cuomo, Thomas E. Dewey, and Harry Truman.

Aside from being a somewhat comforting reminder that the crazy 2016 presidential campaign is not, in fact, all that novel, Whistlestop is a little goldmine for communications pros. While you learn a little history and hear its echoes in today's headlines, you'll also get lessons in media strategy and media gaffes, and learn about the inside view of campaign speeches, speechwriting, and storytelling. Teddy Kennedy's inability to tell a TV interviewer why he should be president is here. So is Bill Clinton's rambling, awful 1988 Democratic convention keynote speech, Truman's astonishing 350+ whistlestop speeches customized with local data in the 1948 campaign, and many more. You also hear how candidates of yore were described as speakers. Truman's opponent, Thomas E. Dewey, delivered echoes of George W. Bush, saying, "America's future is ahead of us," and was described at rallies by a New Yorker reporter this way: "He comes out like a man who has been mounted on casters and given a tremendous shove from behind."

Gaffes aside, there are many diamonds to mine here in the vein of storytelling. My favorite storytelling example so far is in this episode about John McCain's 114 town hall appearances in New Hampshire, campaigning against George W. Bush (who, in contrast, didn't set foot in the state). Dickerson describes McCain's success with this effective bit of storytelling from his prisoner of war days--a story he told at each of the town hall appearances he made. I've transcribed it fully here:
The North Vietnamese, for many years, kept the prisoners of war in solitary confinement or 2 or 3 to a cell. Thanks to the efforts of millions of Americans, including our veterans, the Vietnamese changed that treatment and moved us from solitary confinement or 2 or 3 to a cell to cells with 25 or 30 in each cell. One of the people that moved into the cell with me, when I was moved, was a young man by the name of Mike Christian. Mike Christian came from a very, very poor family near Selma, Alabama. He didn’t wear a pair of shoes until he was 13 years of age. At 17 he enlisted in the United States Navy, later became an officer, and later became a bombardier navigator in an A6 aircraft and was shot down and captured about a year before I was. Mike had a keen appreciation of the opportunities that service to our country in the military provides. 
As part of the change in treatment, the Vietnamese allowed us to receive packages from home that had small articles of clothing, or a handkerchief, or something like that, in it. The uniform that we wore in prison was a short sleeved blue shirt, blue trousers that looked like pajama trousers, and sandals that were cut out of automobile tires. Now I recommend that very highly, that one pair last me five and a half years. Anyway, Mike Christian was able to fashion himself a bamboo needle, and got a piece of white cloth and a piece of red cloth, and over about a month, he sewed on the inside of his shirt the American flag. Every evening, before we would have our bowl of soup, we would put Mike Christian’s shirt of the wall of our cell and say the Pledge of Allegiance. Now, I will freely admit to you saying the Pledge of Allegiance to our flag and our country is not usually the most important part of our day. I want to tell you that--in that prison cell, a couple of guys had already been there for 7 years--pledging our allegiance to our flag and our country was indeed the most important part of our day. 
One day, the Vietnamese came and searched our cell, found Mike Christian’s shirt with the flag sewn inside of it, removed it. That evening they came back, opened the door of the cell, called for him to come out. He did. They closed the door of the cell and for about the next hour they beat him very severely, after which they opened the door of the cell and threw him back in. The cell in which we lived had a concrete slab in the center of it, on which we slept, and in each corner of the room, a light bulb shone 24 hours a day, rather dimly. Well, we cleaned up Mike as well as we could. You could imagine he was not in great shape, and I went over to lay down on the slab to go to sleep, and as I did, I happened to look over, and in the corner of the cell beneath a dim light bulb, with a piece of white cloth and a piece of red cloth and his bamboo needle and another shirt, with his eyes almost shut from the beating he had received, was, of course, my friend Mike Christian, sewing another American flag. 
Mike wasn’t sewing that flag because it made him feel better. He was sewing that flag because he knew how important it was to us to pledge our allegiance to our flag and country. I think of Mike all the time, but I also know that there are young men and women who are serving today who is every bit as good or better than Mike and I were. And I’m so proud that we are associated with the best of America who are serving our nations Armed Forces, who’s carrying on the noble tradition of a young man from a small town near Selma, Alabama named Mike Christian.
Why does this story work? It uses symmetry (flag-sewing at the start and finish) and an "invisible visual," a sticky image that stays in the mind's eye. The story is loaded with concrete details, rather than abstractions, which adds credibility to the speaker. It's short and specific and personal--no one else can tell this story in just this way. And while that third paragraph may seem a little rambling, it purposefully ends with the phrase McCain wanted to emphasize, "sewing another American flag." Leaving that detail to the end of the sentence also adds a little suspense, another key ingredient in a good story.

There's one more important factor in this story, and it's really the first consideration you should have when planning a story in your speaking gigs: Your audience. As Dickerson points out, this story regularly got a lot of applause--because it felt good to the audience members to applaud this story. Why is that? It was a story that had nothing to do with the campaign itself, but with the shared values between the candidate and the voters: love of country, but also admiration for bravery and service, and a hatred of human rights abuses. In fact, Dickerson says, McCain made the storytelling and the campaign the same thing, a reflection of integrity.

McCain went on to win the Republican New Hampshire primary in the 2000 campaign, a real upset chalked up to this deliberate approach to what's called "retail politics," otherwise known as showing up in the smaller, non-arena-sized venues. Dickerson is no slouch in the storytelling department, making history fun and intriguing and relevant to today, adding his insights from the current campaign trail as well as from those he's covered in the past. A juicy part of this episode is Dickerson's own testimony to how long McCain could talk at a town hall and his cheesy humor, in addition to the moving story--as a reporter on the trail, Dickerson certainly sat through enough of these speeches to learn them by heart.

We're not hearing enough of this type of storytelling in the 2016 campaign, so this, to me, is a great reminder that your best stories will be the ones the audience feels good about applauding.

(Image via Wikimedia.org)

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