“Tell me a happy ending story. Is there a happy ending story? Is there, is there? Tell me a happy ending story. Oh tell me the story.”
So sang Courtney Love on the bonus track to the 2010 album Nobody’s Daughter, the fourth and final studio album by the band Hole. Ms. Love did not have a particularly happy story, having been addicted to drugs for most of her adult life, but claims to have been sober since 2007, so maybe will have a happy ending to her own story.
Stories are an important part of politics.
A good politician is really a good storyteller. Storytelling is, in fact, one of the most important communications techniques used in both government and business. It is an important method for dealing with conflicts and for influencing others toward constructive action.
Campaign storytelling to present complex ideas
Storytelling is preferred to abstract statistical and legalistic arguments, particularly when communicating about complex situations. Simply put, great leaders are usually also great storytellers.
This is why some of histories best politicians are also among its best storytellers.
Abraham Lincoln was able to tell the story of the entire Civil War in just 2 minutes and 272 words in one of the greatest stories in American politics, The Gettysburg Address. Ronald Regan, concluded the story of the Cold War in a personal, and human context when he said:
“General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
In the darkest hours of the Second World War, Winston Churchill, with the survival of the civilized world at risk, brought forth the power of his people when he told the story the upcoming battle for Britain by stating that…
“if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour.”
The title of the Hole song brings up something very important about each of these stories, no matter how horrible the situation these leaders were in, their stories always had a happy ending. It is the need to have a happy ending that makes political storytelling both a powerful tool for persuasion, but that also can lead candidates and office holders down a terrible path.
Make sure your stories are true
In fact, one reason why Congress is consistently less popular among the American people than even, root canals, colonoscopies, head lice or even Genghis Kahn (though it has ranked higher in opinion polls than the ebola virus, meth labs and gonorrhea), is that politicians end up telling happy stories even when they simply are not true.
This is particularly common when candidates or incumbents are discussing issues related to finance, economics and taxation.
Simply put, if a politician’s story is supposed to be true, it better be.
For example, when President Obama famously said, “If you like your plan, you can keep your plan”, he very well may have been reading talking points that his staff prepared, but the statement was found to be false. The same was true when President GHW Bush said he would never raise taxes. In both of these cases, it is doubtful that the President was blatantly lying, just that they were trying to tell a happy story when reality simply was not the case.
Complex issues, such as tax policy, require complex analysis — and that analysis needs to be translated into truthful and realistic stories that can then be shared with voters. In telling these stories, politicians must know which points to highlight to make their case, as well as what points the opponent will use to make their case. This is why properly scoring economic and tax policy proposals is so important. Every economic proposal will benefit some people and companies and harm others.
A good story will recognize both of these facts, promoting the benefits, but at the same time discussing why the costs are important to those who are harmed.
Those proposing changes to the tax code or to economic regulations should be able to quantify these changes prior to telling a story about their proposal. For example, has President Obama not tried to force the happy story if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor, but rather said, something like, insurance coverage will change for the better, but you should discuss the plans with your doctor to make sure that they continue to accept it he would have still told a happy story, but put the onus on the doctor to continue to accept plans.
By properly scoring proposals, candidates will have the information necessary to formulate a proper story and will be well prepared to ensure that they do not misspeak. They will set the story line rather than their opponent. They will be able to show how reductions in a corporate tax increase wages in their District, or how a tax increase on a certain population will lead to more programs that eventually benefit that same group.
Economies are not simple and often proposals have serious unintended consequences.
Candidates should be aware of these when then formulate their positions, rather than being forced to react when problems arise. By having the best research and information good politicians will find themselves being compared to Reagan, Lincoln or Churchill, rather than to Genghis Kahn and head lice.