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  • Writer's pictureElana Duffy

Why vision trumps likeability: Lessons from the Iowa caucuses

Politics provides lots of possibilities to witness the power of words and stories. What happened this week at the Iowa caucuses in the US presidential election was no exception.

In a late night interview, a reporter asked an official from the Bernie Sanders campaign why they had not emphasized his personal background, upbringing, and immigrant family history.

“He has a good story to tell,” the reporter said.

“We’ll get to it,” the official responded, or something to that effect.

[Before we continue: this post is about the use of messages and stories, not an endorsement or comment on any political candidate. So as you read further and especially if you comment, let’s please focus on story strategy and tactics, not the candidates]

The official’s comment raises several questions about how to make a political communication strategy work, and by extension, perhaps improve the effectiveness of any communications campaign. Why hadn’t they talked more about Bernie the person? How many other untold stories do they have? Why do they make a distinction between the message and the messenger and leave potential positive stories and points out?

These questions are particularly pertinent in that Bernie had a long way to go when he started his campaign. His home state, Vermont, is ranked 45th in total area and 49th in population, ahead of only Wyoming. Compared to Hillary Clinton, who has been a high-profile media fixture for almost 25 years, he began his campaign as a virtual unknown. But the story is still being released piecemeal. And somehow, the methodology is working. I’m not privy to the strategy of the Senator Sanders’ campaign, but it seems that they are doing three smart things to help raise their candidate’s national profile.

  • Write the entire master story upfront: There is no such thing as one overarching “Bernie Sanders” story, in the same way that your own business shouldn’t rely on one single short story. Your Master Story is a reservoir of your best stories which bring you and your ideas to life and spark recognition so that the reader or listener – whether a customer, a potential investor, a journalist or market observer, or a potential partner or employee, or in Sanders’ case, a voter – feels or acts a certain way. In Sanders’ case the action was “listen to this agenda” and not “like me”. I’m confident the campaign has several variants of the “who is Bernie?”, “How will he govern?” and “Can he deliver?” stories ready for when the time is right. They will be well planned and will anticipate attacks as others try to tear down the messenger, not just his messages. They are in his Master Story, and can be used as he needs it.

  • Pitch the vision first: If you are so unknown that you don’t even qualify to be an underdog, how to you get through to people? In other words, which part of your master story do you tell first? People are naturally drawn to aspiration. Details and likeability matters if they buy a grander version, or at least initially see it as plausible and congruous. In Sanders’ case it was wise to start with the vision. If potential voters reject that, the rest doesn’t matter. He hammers away at five bold initiatives ($15 minimum wage, free college education, campaign finance, Wall Street reform, tax increases) so well that even the haters can recite them verbatim. Instead of pure platitudes such as “Make America Great Again”, his vision teases with some specifics but without weighing down each point with detail. The point is that the messenger and his likeability – like the policy details – have been secondary so far. Personality and likeability may still swing the nomination for the candidates, Republican or Democrat. But in this case, you close with them. You don’t start with them. If the Sanders campaign had focused on him first rather than his agenda in order to make him stand out, I would argue he would be in a much worse position right now. The same is true if he had bogged himself down at a deeper level of detail right from the start.

  • Know your core audience, but don’t overwhelm: In business as in politics, you can divide your readers or listeners into three broad groups: those who will agree wholeheartedly with your views, those who will dismiss your views, and those who could be swayed to join that first group. There is a fine line to walk in order to keep that swing group interested. You need to keep the messages clean and consistent, and become synonymous with them.

Watching the Sanders campaign build has been fascinating, not just from the political perspective but from that of a storyteller. His team cleverly crafted his entire Master Story first, so they could then determine what pieces would be strongest to tell at what points in the campaign. They focused on what set him apart, not on gaining sympathies from similarities, and it is a tactic that worked. It gained interest and maintained focus on issues. You don’t have to be in politics to make these tactics work for you. Find time to craft your Master Story, or that of your business, so you can use it to your full advantage. And if you need help, you know who to ask.

Frank Luby is co-founder and CEO of Present Tense LLC, a communications company dedicated to helping people express their ideas through better business storytelling. He co-authored the book “10/10: How to write business content that is memorable and effective” and was part of the team which translated and edited “Confessions of The Pricing Man” for author Hermann Simon. You can also follow Frank on Twitter: @FrankLuby

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