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Political leaders must understand the influence of a compelling story

COMMONNESS - Bong R. Osorio - The Philippine Star
Political leaders must understand the influence of a compelling story
Winners in the recent political contest told stories that drew in, amazed, managed and generated the support of their constituents.

We tell stories. It’s one of the ways we link up with our families, trade partners, friends and constituents. It’s how we impress prospective employers when we apply for jobs or make deals with potential clients. It’s what we do on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram, and even how we go about the business of looking for a partner.

Winners in the recent political contest told stories that drew in, amazed, managed and generated the support of their constituents. They won armed with many acquired skills, including the ability to enlighten people through engaging narratives. Without such power, they would have had a shortage of people who would put their names on the ballot.

As Filipinos with the power to elect our political leaders, we headed to our respective precincts last May 13 to cast our vote. And when the winners were identified and announced, they must have had a full understanding of the influence of compelling stories. Through their chronicles they educated, informed, entertained, persuaded and caused change. And with their examples, their constituents were given background knowledge on how they are as leaders. If political leaders need to attain a strong emotional connection with their followers — current or potential — effective storytelling is not a “nice-to-have.” It’s a must.

There are several fundamental principles of storytelling that have stood the test of time. How should a political leader appear and how much of himself does he really want — or is willing — to share? He scrutinizes the opportunities and pressures shaped by modern-day realities such as the 24-hour news cycle, and what they reveal to him on how to reach the top, how to stay on top, and how to handle criticism or bashing.

Here are some workable, striking and practical tips political leaders, publicists and speechmakers can consider, inspired by Gavin Esler’s Lessons from the Top.  Esler has been a BBC news presenter for many years.

Engage your listeners. It does not matter how you do it, so long as you do it. Every political leader tells a leadership story in three parts: The brand’s persona — “Who am I?” The party’s persona — “Who are we?” And the tie that binds — “What is our common purpose?” ?He must learn to answer the “Who am I?” question adequately, or the other questions do not matter. You may have numerous traits, but if you are incapable of telling stories then you cannot communicate with your constituents and your political career will fail. The 21st century has seen great changes in the way we communicate and hence, in the stories we tell. People understand character better than policies. That’s why a trivial story well told is always better than a profound story badly told.

Tell stories you hope will stick like an “earwig.” The part of the story that squirms inside a listener’s ear, such that the message sticks, is called an “earwig.” It is very much like the way in which a chorus or refrain in the catchiest songs leech into your mind — good or bad. It’s called LSS or “last song syndrome.” Think of it as the headline you would like to see appended to your name, or the epitaph that would fit on your tombstone.

Be cautious in your use of words. Take extra care when applying positive vocabulary about yourself, and at times negative language directed at your competitors. On television, pictures can be even more important. Telling a leadership narrative is like the board game “Snakes and Ladders.” Making a speech in a controlled environment is a “ladder” — something likely to enhance your reputation as a political leader. But giving an interview, especially on a confrontational radio program or to a newspaper journalist, is potentially a “snake,” since it is very intricate for you to have power over the outcome.

Give your audience the “STAR” moment. “STAR” is short for “Something They Always Remember.” Think of Bill Gates opening a jar filled with mosquitoes while talking about malaria to a room filled with potential donors.

Tell your story; tell it, and tell it again. In other words, repeat yourself. Drill the “earwig” and “STAR” moment into the brains of your listeners. Tell people how your thinking has developed, but be careful to explain any changes with respect to the past, including your own.

Strive for five. Remember the actor’s method for improving his craft. People want you to look at them as equals — just like us — and not talk down to them from the height of a “10,” or even talk up to them from a lonely “one.”

Recognize that you must adapt the way you tell your political leadership stories to compete in the new media market. Today’s information age has seen a transformation in the way you receive news, and in the kind of news you read, see and hear. Gossip has become globalized. Even obscure people can suddenly become famous. Privacy is dead. Celebrity culture has changed what you expect to see and hear about those in the news. A new intrusiveness in the lives of political leaders is here, heralding a return to much older traditions of 18th- and 19th-century communicators.

Use shared experiences of your childhood to identify with a nation or people. It is a universal phenomenon. You have a fund of stories from your early days. You remember family pets, the discipline of your elders, the crazy things you did, the hard lessons of successes and failures, and the rebellion of your teenage years. You also know that such stories connect with your common humanity. The naughtiness and misfortunes of your youth cleverly remind you of the common humanity you share with other future leaders.

Aspire for authenticity in your story, even if authenticity can be faked. And sometimes it should be faked. Authenticity is more important than truth. Stories that the audience suspects may not entirely be true can serve the leader’s purpose if they sound genuine. Honesty is still the best policy, because if you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything, and a story that sounds real is one that will be believed even if — as with the biographies of many political leaders — some of the details have been massaged, spun or fabricated.

Employ humor in your storytelling. It is humanizing. To make an effective leadership story you need to engage your audience by violating their expectations, and surprising them in some way. You can do this by being self-deprecating, hilarious, and humble, or by out-of-this-world statements.

Change your own leadership stories and bring people with you. Former US president Bill Clinton, who was described as a political leader that’s “deeply flawed but a political genius,” altered his personal story, altered his own party, and altered his country. Policies got altered, too, but they were part of Clinton’s strategy to hold on to power. Clinton’s approach makes you understand that you are also rooted in tradition. You can adopt the same patterns for your business, profession or other areas of your lives. To be effectively new, you must destroy the past and start again, since the past should be built on, not destroyed.

Manage temperament more than intelligence in a scandalous situation. A scandal is the worst kind of counter-story imaginable. Your objective is survival. The strategy and tactics in facing disgraceful and shameful circumstances vary with different leaders, but the key is to engage the audience with the leader’s character and personality, and to make the scandal seem either out of character or, if clearly in character, irrelevant to the overall performance of the leader.

Learn from your mistakes, and admit they were possible. Do not compound them by giving your opponent the worst examples of negative counter-stories. And, more importantly, defend yourself. Nobody will do it for you. If you cannot explain your “Who am I?” answers, others will characterize you according to their convenience, not yours. Build “learning from mistakes” elements into your story. Rewrite the script for new times, and apologize for the past where necessary.

Apply the triumvirate in storytelling: objective, strategy, and tactics. If you order your priorities it will help you think through the message of the stories you are trying to tell.

Live your story; don’t just tell it. Nothing annoys people more than discovering that the stories that you tell do not match up to your actions. In theater, this is called “dramatic irony.” In real life, it is called hypocrisy.

Author Salman Rushdie said, “Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives — the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change — truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.”

You are a storyteller. You exist amid a web of stories. You develop a stronger connection. Behind a great leader is a great story. You establish a stronger and more meaningful connection between you and other people by your power to tell stories.

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