Donald Trump can tell a story – can you?

Donald Trump, story, storytelling

This is not a political blog so I am not going to comment on whether or not Donald Trump winning the US election was a good idea. His ability to tell a story, however, was instrumental in the victory and speakers and media interviewees can learn a great deal from it.

On the surface he broke many rules. He insulted former presidents and even members of the same party (specifically John McCain for being captured whilst in the army). He made derogatory comments about women and where to grab them…you don’t need me to tell you this stuff. So what went right?

Hillary could never win

First let’s get the hindsight out of the way. America was hungrier for change than many people realised, So the continuity candidate, who whatever her capabilities was actually married to the last-bar-the-current Democrat president, was always going to be working at a disadvantage. Writing off her rival’s followers as a “basket of deplorables” was never going to change that.

We’ll return to that in a second. However, first it’s worth looking at how Trump, and indeed the Brexiters before him, formulated their messages.

Tell me a story

Whenever I’m media training I remind people that it’s a journalist’s job to tell stories. It’s the same for a blogger. An analyst will want raw facts and logic, but the general reader who has no vested interest will probably not read their reports, even if they’re going to be more factual and less biased than the journalistic alternatives.

This point has been missed repeatedly by politicians in recent generations. In the 1960s it was well understood by Harold Wilson, who spoke of the “white heat of technology” – dated though it seems in these ecologically sensitive times, it was a powerful image at the time and told the story of Britain at the forefront of the new revolution. Tony Blair is now far from in favour but in 1997 he appeared to be a beacon of hope, and his story of a resurgent Britain – a “cool Britannia” – resonated with the times. Across the Atlantic, five years previously, Bill Clinton had centred his first presidential campaign around the word “change”, which makes Hillary’s defeat all the more ironic.

For a while, though, moderate and left politicians used stories to make their points. They painted images and were memorable. Now fast forward to more recent times.

Consider the Scottish Independence referendum. OK, on that occasion the guys with the better stories lost and logic won the day, but my guess is that a number of people spotted the narrowness of the win. Threatening economic meltdown or ice cold facts was not as attractive to, say, the people of Glasgow as the story of how their country could be independent again.

Storytelling has a knack of winning the day at the moment.

Continental or full English Brexit

The UK has never been more divided than it is now, and a lot of that is down to the vote on Brexit. For my money, Nick Clegg nails the effect in his book, “Politics: Between The Extremes“. There’s a lot of self-justification in this and a load of political theory that demonstrates that liberal politics will be back, of which there is as yet scant evidence, but his comments on storytelling are key.

He points out that few if any people will have believed that an extra £350bn would be found for the National Health Service. They liked the story, though, because it chimed with the theme of “taking back control”. Objectors could point to the idea that there was no £350bn (even Nigel Farage was quick to backpedal on that one) or that the country passed its own laws and was therefore already in control; the appealing narrative said otherwise and although it was on a knife-edge, the appealing storytellers won. The opposition’s retorts with narrative-free rebuttals, whether you accept their premise or not, was never going to gain traction (particularly once the “project fear” narrative had been established – whatever your view on the issues, the ability to write off any stats your opponent throws at you with a single phrase was a masterstroke of communication).

Their current postscript is the story about how decisive the referendum was – they’re repeating it a lot and it’s gaining traction, when a 51.9% to 48.1% result is just about as close as it gets without being a draw.

Trump will have picked up on the effectiveness of this storytelling technique. In fact he’d been using it for some time already and the opposition was failing to respond.

Mexico, Muslims, rigged systems…

Among his earliest claims during the campaign were that he would get the Mexican government to pay to build a wall to keep their criminals in their own country. There would, he conceded, be a door.

A lot of people saw this as ludicrous at the time. Persuade a foreign power to pay for their own incarceration? Not a chance. That became the standard riposte, but Trump appeared to be gambling that his audience would respond well to the story. Whether or not there was a wall afterwards would be something to deal with, but as part of a narrative it was stronger than the logic. Crowds chanted along with it – “What are we going to build?” “A wall!” It sounds mad but as a piece of entertainment it was very much part of a storytelling strategy.

Likewise Trump’s claim that he would ban Muslims from the US. Quite how you’d know (clue: the extremists might claim to be from another faith all together, the law-abiding majority are the ones who’ll have no problem identifying themselves) or enforce the idea is almost irrelevant. The narrative, “you’re alarmed by extremists so here’s a story about what I’m going to do about it”, resonated with the people whose votes he needed.

Clinton’s response was to tell a story about a “basket of deplorables”. That might be right but it was never going to play well. Her only story said she detested a lot of her voters. Finally Trump came up with his own masterstroke: the claim that the election would be rigged. His victory suggests, as many people had said, that this was a complete fiction. Crucially, though, it chimed with the rest of his claims – and even more importantly it gave his supporters permission to vote for him rather than do something more conventional. It’s a rigged election anyway, you might as well…and they did.

What’s your narrative?

In business there are lessons to be learned from this. Some are in place already. Apple’s marketing is subtly (it used to be blatant) based on the idea that you’re a slightly better person if you use their products. It’s a story rather than an objective analysis of how, say, a phone actually works. In the late 1980s, Michael Dell launched his computers not on the back of their quality or efficiency but on the strength of how crazy people were to pay so much for big brands.

So when you’re speaking, or when you’re being interviewed, try to have some narrative in mind for your brand. First, people respond to them, and second, it offers you a consistent set of values when you’re asked an unexpected question.

Changing the values

The interesting bit, at least in Trump’s case, is coming up right now. A lot of his narrative was about a return to old fashioned conservative values and there was some concern about equal marriage legislation being repealed. Over the weekend he rowed back on this, although retained his aversion to abortion in any circumstances. The immigrants he wants to deport are illegal ones and the famous wall has been scaled down to a fence in places and famously he may be modifying rather than scrapping Obamacare. Contrary to statements during the campaign he appears to be in no rush to imprison Hillary Clinton and has been positively respectful towards his soon-to-be-predecessor Barack Obama.

The questions facing him now will be first: what can he do to make at least some of his pledges a practical reality, and second: if the new, post-campaign, slightly softer Trump is the real one (and I honestly don’t claim to know), can his change in tone carry his supporters with him?

There’s a lesson here about making your own narrative sustainable. If you and your business have strong messages, you’d better be certain you want to stick with them for longer than it takes to achieve a single objective. Otherwise, once the objective has been met, you’ll find they’re still there – and if you didn’t really agree with them they could haunt you for a while.

One thought on “Donald Trump can tell a story – can you?”

  1. Great post, Guy. I think you make some very solid points.

    On the day (figuratively speaking) Trump was able to tell a more convincing story than all the professional politicians he was up against. Whether that says more about him than it does about them is, for me, a moot point.

    I don’t think he’s much of a story teller. I do, however, think he read the mood of the country far better than anyone else – politicians, pollsters, and press alike.

    I wouldn’t vote for a Trump or a Farage. But like a lot of people, I’ve spent most of the last 10 years getting angry at the over-educated, under-performing professional political class that dominates all the major UK political parties, newspapers, TV, punditry in all flavours, and more. From public school to Oxbridge, from there to a job as a SPAD or on a national newspaper or at the BBC, the over-privileged few that govern the country and shape opinions are as much to blame as the poor saps who fall under the spell of pied pipers like Farage.

    Maybe even more so.

    They make it too easy for the Trumpocracy to get away with it, by leaving the field clear of genuine, authentic voices. Everything is so polished, everyone is so prepared. No answer is ever given straight. Everything stinks of duplicity and arrogance. And they’re all cut from the same cloth – same backgrounds, same education, same values. The rest of us are not like them. We crave the voices of others who are not like them.

    Small wonder the public grow mistrustful of the establishment – they aren’t trustworthy even when they’re telling the truth.

    Trump was authentically ‘Donald Trump’ throughout his campaign. For those of us who could see what a danger that was, this authentic Trumpness led us to think he’d never get elected. But for a lot of people it was what they’d been waiting for – someone who didn’t sound like a liar.

    That the Clinton vote failed to show up shows the extent to which people would rather look the other way and do nothing than continue to support a system they’ve lost faith in.

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