What’s Your Story?
I’m going to level with you, <<First Name>>.
I’ve got a habit I just can’t break.
It’s a vice that decays the mind, numbs the soul and fills my heart with shame.
It’s not drink, drugs, gambling, or food. Even the call of Venus I can enjoy in perfect moderation.
But for more than 30 years, I have wrestled with a demon whose grip I cannot escape – and of whom I refuse to let go.
I am f&%*ing hooked on American Politics.
And so far, 2016 has been the political equivalent of deep-fried opium and chocolate-coated crystal meth – served at a roulette table with a gallon-jug of absinthe. By strippers.
It’s not about which candidate I support – that’s beside the point.
Instead, I’m obsessed with how leaders build a following strong enough to propel them into power.
According to Mark McKinnon, a media advisor to hundreds of successful candidates, the secret is in the story.
In this excellent video for the New York Times, McKinnon describes the essential human need for narrative to make sense of the world. When we have so much information to process – we long for a simple, clear story to give it all meaning.
We want to turn complicated issues full of shadow and nuance into simple tales of heroes, villains, opportunities, threats and forces of evil to be overcome.
McKinnon believes that elections aren’t won on policy. They’re not even won on personality. Instead, the candidate who tells the most powerful storywins.
He further notes that no matter what the circumstances of a given election, the winning story will either be one of hope or one of fear: a promise of possibility and a brighter future, or a commitment to protect and defend against a gathering threat.
Anything else gets ignored.
History bears McKinnon out. Run through the winning candidates of the last 75 years, and you see the hope/fear pattern emerge again and again. Every successful candidate from Roosevelt to Obama has shaped the national story around either hope or fear – while the losers ceded control of the narrative to their opponents.
So What’s the Point?
McKinnon’s insights aren’t just relevant for people running for office.
Anyone who wants to lead others – either in small teams or giant organisations – needs to recognise the essential human need for stories to process the world around them.
Because people turn what they see and hear into stories with heroes and villains, hopes and fears, leaders are constantly creating stories of hope or fear through their language, tone and behaviour – whether they’re aware of it or not.
Some leaders shape stories of fear by
- Pointing fingers of blame at other regions, functions or people;
- Seizing upon the urgent, without addressing the important;
- Being inaccessible – always on the road or in another meeting;
- Talking about other people, not to them;
- Regularly showing frustration, anger or disappointment
But you can create stories of hope by
- Acknowledging the challenges ahead with confidence and verve;
- Pointing out the strengths your people bring to what they do;
- Encouraging team members to work together to find solutions;
- Clearly defining the future you and your team are working to create.
It’s your story to tell.
One last thing: I need to throw a quick shout out to several students at my alma-mater for the way they used a story of hope against the worst kind of fear.Check out how these Davidson seniors disrupted a Trump event with a truly inspiring call to action.