Storytelling by Mark Pack & Edward Maxfield

By at July 7, 2013 | 4:45 pm | Print

Storytelling by Mark Pack & Edward Maxfield

Edward Maxfield 2013

Facts tell, but stories sell … If you’re not communicating in stories, you’re not communicating.      James Carville and Paul Begala

Having persuaded you of the virtues of sound bites in our last lesson, now we want to persuade you of the virtues of stories.

Storytelling makes messages memorable, which means they stick in people’s minds. Communications experts Richard Maxwell and Robert Dickman define a story as ‘a fact, wrapped in an emotion, that compels us to take an action that transforms our world’.

Not every story quite gets into the world-changing category, but their basic idea is very sound – a story takes a core idea (often thought of as the fable or moral of the story), wraps it in emotion to give it extra impact and then makes it memorable. And stories work better for being short. The Australian Democrats captured the essence with a campaign slogan: ‘Keep the bastards honest.’ It was a story, a plot and a denouement all in one sentence.

It is not just that the dynamic of a story makes it memorable. Even relatively unexciting stories can work because they also have an internal logic of their own, which means that as you start remembering the first part your brain can work out what the next bit must have been. It is like travelling a route you have taken before – at each step you remember what the next step is. That can turn even a complicated policy or set of arguments into a memorable, moving message.

A great example is the famous ‘Daisy Girl’ advert run by the Lyndon Johnson US presidential campaign in 1964. It shows a small girl picking the petals off a flower, counting slowly. She stumbles over her counting in a cute way as birds sing in the background. When she gets to nine, an ominous voice takes over, counting down to zero as the camera zooms in on her eye, turning the screen black. As it becomes completely black, it is replaced by images of nuclear Armageddon and a message that the stakes are too high to risk voting for anyone other than Johnson:

Packed into that mini-story is not only a message about foreign policy and nuclear weapons, but also Johnson’s experience and judgement compared to that of his opponent, Barry Goldwater, who had made comments about using nuclear weapons in Vietnam.

Like all the best stories it has a beginning (girl picking flowers), a middle (nuclear war) and an end (good news – there is a way to avoid it); you invest emotionally in the central character (the girl); it has a hero ( Johnson), a villain (Barry Goldwater) and a happy ending (vote and you save the world). It is like a Spielberg film in miniature, all packed into less than a minute.

The power of the film is even more apparent if you contrast it with what it could have been – a recitation of factual statements and nuclear arsenal statistics. Effective political messages are not made out of bullet points and decimal points, you need stories and emotions.

This film may be the pinnacle of political story making, but the lessons apply even when you are arguing over less weighty issues and on a smaller political stage.

Your stories need to be good and convincing; otherwise, they come across as contrived. Remember what happened in the first televised general election debate in the UK in 2010. All three party leaders had clearly been briefed to wrap their policy points in a human story, ‘I was talking to a voter in X town last week…’ The media and public could not fail to notice, comment and satirise.

But good stories not only help voters to understand how policies might affect them and their lives, they also move the voters to action – to helping and to voting.

This lesson was taken from our book, 101 Ways To Win An Election which in addition to the 10 in this series has another 91 for you to learn from! Buy the book

Dr Mark Pack is the co-author of 101 Ways To Win an Election and former Head of Innovations for the UK’s Liberal Democrat party, where he ran the party’s 2001 and 2005 online general election campaigns. His internet campaigning firsts include arranging the first British political party leader on Facebook and the first British election candidate website to take online donations.

@markpack on Twitter

Dr Edward Maxfield has worked as a campaigns and communications professional for over a decade. He currently runs the constituency office of Norman Lamb, UK Member of Parliament and Health Minister in the Coalition Government. Ed was a member of the Liberal Democrats’ national campaigns team from 2001 to 2006 and has also worked as a lecturer, a lobbyist and for some of the world’s biggest business consultancy firms.


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