Winning Huge With Authentic Stories

In politics, as in business, communications isn’t everything. But it’s a big thing. 

As Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders swept to victories in the New Hampshire primaries, The New York Times said: 

The candidates who fared best in New Hampshire — Mr. Sanders, Mr. Trump and Mr. Kasich — all offered easily understood, well-communicated messages. 

So love them or loathe them, we should learn from them.

Because Trump and Bernie don't just know how to tell a good story.  

They know how to structure a good story.


Story Structure

All stories need a beginning, a middle, and an end

  • The beginning, or back story, gives us context - where are we and how did we get here? 
  • The end is a prize worth fighting for - the bigger the prize, the more compelling the story. 

The middle is where the action takes place, and the characters take center stage: 

  • A hero with a problem.
  • The villains, out to thwart the hero.
  • A mentor, or sidekick, who helps the hero outwit the villains. 

The story is propelled forward by dramatic turning points: 

  • An inciting incidentthe straw that breaks the camel’s back and compels the hero to act.
  • A call to action - the final key to outwitting the villains and gaining the prize. 


Despite his egotistic tendencies, Trump is careful to make his electorate - The Silent Majority - the hero of his story. And like Sanders, he positions himself as the mentor who can help his supporters achieve their goals. 

The Trump Story Structure

  • Back story: America doesn’t win any more. We have become a nation of losers
  • A prize worth fighting for: Make America Great Again
  • Inciting incident: The election of President Obama
  • Hero with a problem: The Silent Majority
  • Villains: The Washington Elite, Illegal Immigrants, ISIS
  • Mentor: Donald Trump
  • Call to action: Vote for Trump


The Trump Elevator Pitch

The Silent Majority is not winning any more. 

By electing Obama we have become a nation of losers, undermined by the political correctness of the Washington Elite. 

A vote for Trump will get rid of illegal immigrants, show China who’s boss and crush ISIS to Make America Great Again. 


The Sanders Story Structure

  • Back story: The system is rigged against ordinary people 
  • A prize worth fighting forMake America Fair Again
  • Inciting incident: The Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United
  • Hero with a problem: The Working Middle Class
  • Villains: Wall St., Billionaire Donors, Corporate Lobbyists
  • Mentor: Bernie Sanders
  • Call to action: Vote for Bernie

The Sanders Elevator Pitch

The American system is rigged against you.

Citizens United has corrupted the political system, giving control to a handful of billionaires and supporting an economy in which the rich get richer and the middle class gets screwed. 

A vote for Bernie will get the money out of politics, and give every American free healthcare and education, which will level the playing field and Make America Fair Again.  

Authentic Advocacy

The New York Times rightly points out that the winning candidates also came across as "authentic advocates of their positions." 

Mainstream candidates will continue to struggle to make the case for their greater qualifications and experience, until they find their own authentic story that resonates with the electorate.  

Tell a story, not a strategy

Trump and Sanders are grabbing all the attention. 

Bush and Clinton continue to protest that they have more reasoned and pragmatic strategies. 

Many informed commentators like the Washington Post’s Kathleen Parker agree with them:

“His (Trump’s) plans and policies are amateurish to pretendish, certainly as compared with those of someone such as Jeb Bush, who has offered detailed plans for tackling complicated issues. Not that voters are going to read them.”

And therein lies the problem. Strategies don’t grab people’s attention. Stories do. 

As Bob Hoffman writes on The Ad Contrarian

“The public never sees the strategy document. All they see are the spots. If the spots suck, the whole thing sucks.” 

Just as nothing kills a bad product like great advertising, the best strategies are worthless without creative content that demands attention and inspires action.  

More from Hoffman: 

“It doesn't matter how brilliant or noble your strategy is. If your ad is just a re-stating of the strategy and does not communicate something interesting and memorable you will have wasted your money -- regardless of your intent.”

The same is true in business communications. 

Very few people are inspired by a strategy. 

People are inspired by stories that bring a strategy to life. 

Trump and Sanders are inspiring action by telling better stories. 


Is it all about Hillary or all about you?

One of the many lessons I've learned from the great presentation designer, Nancy Duarte, is to always make your audience the hero of your story. 

In her book Resonate, she illustrates this by likening people who make presentations focused on themselves to that guy at the cocktail party who talks only about himself.

 Source: Resonate by Nancy Duarte

Source: Resonate by Nancy Duarte

Nobody wants to be that guy.

Nancy argues that it’s much more powerful when you put the audience front and center, as the hero of your story. While your job, as a speaker, is to be seen as a wise and trusted mentor who can help the audience pursue their dreams, or achieve their goals. 

In other words, make your audience feel like Luke Skywalker, and let them see you as Yoda.

 Source: Resonate by Nancy Duarte

Source: Resonate by Nancy Duarte

Maybe this is why, as the two leading Democratic candidates release their latest ads in the run up to the Iowa caucus, that it’s Bernie’s message that seems to be resonating with voters. 


This House | Hillary Clinton

America | Bernie SaNders