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The Storyteller Won

By Mike Bonifer 3 years ago
Home  /  News  /  The Storyteller Won

When I was in college, we elected a King of the student body. Twice. Robert “King” Kersten, today a surgeon from Cincinnati, ran, at first, as a joke. As a parody of student government. He promised students an ‘enlightened oligarchy consisting of me and my close friends.’ His platform included planks such as an ‘A-B grading system for all classes,’ and ‘recruitment of Yanamamo Indians from Brazil.’  He campaigned in a Roman Catholic priest’s vestments and a cardboard Burger King crown. His running mate (because the election bylaws said you had to have one) was a cat (because nothing in the bylaws said a running mate had to be a student or a human) named UnCandidate, that he trained to sit on his shoulder.


King Kersten

Before long, Kersten had practically the entire student body engaged in the narrative. Students would dress in black suits, black shirts, white ties, sunglasses and fedoras, carry violin cases and escort King Kersten around campus and into sporting events. A student named Fish Brennan, who had a severe hunchback condition, would sweep the path ahead of him with a broom. His election headquarters was the second commode of the fourth floor bathroom of Walsh Hall. He delivered campaign speeches as a disembodied voice coming from a burning wastebasket. Thousands of students would gather to hear the burning wastebasket speak. It was brilliant theater. Profound storytelling. It was a sensation. 

After getting elected, King Kersten was a figurehead. He had little interest in student government, and abdicated his powers to a friend of his named Dennis Etienne, known as H-Man, who was what I’d call Kersten’s head writer. In his senior year, students elected Kersten their King a second time even though he didn’t campaign and his name wasn’t on the ballot, and he again relinquished his role to H-Man. “The only thing I want out of this,” Kersten once told me, “is for the Beach Boys to perform on campus every year.” That happened. Both years Kersten was King, the Beach Boys performed at our school. 

It might have begun as a joke, and now it’s not a joke. And it has consequences far beyond where the Beach Boys will play a concert, or the policy on keggers. Our electoral system just spit out a President who campaigned to be king, on the most divisive, corrosive narrative I’ve ever heard in U.S. national politics. This hangs in my pain closet alongside the Kennedy and King assassinations, and 9/11. It suffocates me with my deepest-held belief–that storytelling is how we create the world. Storytelling, I am reminded by this electoral embarrassment, can destroy as many worlds as it creates. Bring about as many bleak futures as joyous ones. Extinguish as much light as it ignites.

When a person is suffocating, breathing is what you’d call a vital concern. I am focusing on my breath. On music and tempo and timing, which tie to the breath. On prayer, which ties to the breath and clears the mind. I’m in mad conversations with my sons and others about what it would take for California to secede, and could we bring Oregon and Washington with us. Absurd? Maybe. What matters now is that creative thought animates our breathing, punctuates our work with big inhales and exhales. Expands the possibilities in our current pose. As I write this, I am breathing as much life as I can into each word and phrase.

I am focusing a lot on my friends, especially women of color in our family and network, who seem, to me, to be most in mourning at this sad referendum. Hurt is a relative thing, we all experience events differently. I don’t discount what anyone else is feeling about this, but women of color have, to a measurable fact, been bearing up longer than anyone under the story yoked to them by the Trumps of  this country. Four years? Ha. That’s nothing. They’ve been suffocated by it for hundreds of years. Finally…finally, it seemed that women of color were going to catch their breath. Hillary and her team promised a liberation of sorts, an a breath of fresh air from the kinds of arrogant, entitled, lying, cheating, groping, racist, sport-killing white men typified by Trump, who have brought them so much grief over so many lifetimes.

But no. It was not to be. Our nightmare got voted in. Fear and indifference strangled optimism and hearts-of-care. The women in my family grieve. The men seethe. And the terrible irony, for me, is that the storyteller won. We won’t even get into the irony that the electoral college puked out precisely the kind of demagogue it was designed to guard us against. The storyteller won.

As storytellers, we have to confront the hard reality that sometimes the biggest swindlers are the best storytellers. What is a con job but a 100% commitment to a story designed to benefit the teller? Who is a better storyteller than the thief who gets away with it? The embezzler who never gets prosecuted?  The poker player who’s bluffing? Hillary can play a lot of roles. Storyteller isn’t one of them. She tries to tell stories using logic, and tries to defuse her opponents’ stories with facts and information. That may work from a lawyerly or legislative standpoint, but it misses the essence of storytelling, which is that stories move, and move their audiences, primarily with emotions and metaphors. Logic comes from the mind, which follows events; stories come from the heart and the gut which leads events. Her opponent exploited this opening from the get-go. He did not give one goddamn about facts, figures, or logic. He was out to control and corral his audience using metaphors that tapped into their deepest fears–fear of people of color; of smart independent women; of LGBTQ folks; of immigrants; of technology; of other nationalities; of Muslims; of the youth; of the future and the change it brings; of the loss of (the illusion of) control; of their imminent deaths and their legacies. He energized his supporters by characterizing Hillary as the sum of all these fears.

As the yoginis say to do, I’m breathing into the pain. Trump would make fun of that in a New York minute, he’d blow an immediate dog whistle for anyone who prefers hunting dogs to downward dogs. Hillary would explain the therapeutic value of yoga using evidence-based data. And buttoned it with a line written for her a month earlier by an ad agency when their research showed her opponent’s vulnerability in the area of women’s health: “Hibbity bippity hoppity women’s health …[pause]…scoobily  doobily Donald punch line!  [audience applauds]”

Here’s a deeper analysis of why Trump’s storytelling defeated Hillary’s more data-driven approach to the election:

The data in stories is more valuable than the stories in data. My friend Samuel Shareef, who has as much perspective on political storytelling as anyone I know, said to me yesterday, “Trump found his story early on–that he could win by going back to the old narrative that most of us thought we’d turned the corner on, the story of racism in America. He saw that aging and uneducated white men and the women who follow them was still a big enough group to win the election. And he never got off that one note. Never strayed from that story. In another four years or eight years, this won’t be the case, because they’re dying off, and the population will shift to be more diverse. We’re seeing a lot of evidence of this already. But he saw there was one more cycle in the old story.” In other words, Trump saw the data in a certain type of story, and that was the story he bet on.

Hillary’s campaign, by comparison, was constantly inputting more data. With each new wave of data, new stories emerged, and Team Clinton moved their bets around. This produced a constantly shifting brand narrative and, at the same time, a middling effect. Absent a coherent story to contextualize data as it comes in, every decision tends to move to the middle. A kind of banality creeps into a story. By eliminating the lows, a storyteller cuts off the peaks in the story, too. Limits the dynamics, so to speak.

Ultimately, the story-data relationship comes down to what famed Silicon Valley venture capitalist, Chris Sacca, realized years ago–“Good stories always beat good spreadsheets.”

She scripted. He improvised. No doubt her campaign thought they were on top of the story. They probably were. And it was a problem. Because candidate who wants to fill a 24/7 international news cycle for 18 months has to let the story be on top of him or her. In other words, the story is bigger than the storyteller. As egotistical as Trump may be or seem, he was always playing his role in service of the big story. He could immediately relate everything that happened on the campaign trail to his story and his theme, and could riff on it instantly. He could tweet a dozen times while Hillary was still in meetings with people reporting to her what would get tweeted on her behalf the next day. Because he was first to act, he was able to continually frame the context for Hillary’s ‘next-to-act,’ moves. When she took six months off to rest up and script her campaign, he had the stage to himself for six months, and he improvised the whole time. Didn’t spend a dime on media. Got it all.

She who commissions the data gets better news than she otherwise would. All research is subjective and tends toward confirmation bias. We know this is a thing. Did Hillary directly commission the media polls that showed her in control and favored through most of the election cycle? No. Were the people who did the polls on her payroll? Not likely. Yet, they were likely part of the vast Clinton network. Academics, pollsters, media execs and non-profits she has been cultivating for years. They were probably, in most cases, Hillary supporters. They were going to lean toward giving her team good news, because that’s what they wanted to see, themselves.

What was different about the one poll that saw the story? We pay a lot of attention to the differences between processes for analyzing stories. What was different about the USC-L.A. Times Daybreak tracking poll that, unlike any other national poll, had Trump in front the whole way? Two key things:

a) Instead of polling a new set of 3,000 likely voters monthly, the Daybreak poll kept polling the same 3,000 voters from survey to survey. This meant that they could see the election narrative as an ongoing phenomenon instead of as a set of isolated data points that had to be mined each time for new stories. The complexity of adding even one more dataset of 3,000 voters to a survey, then trying to determine the story relationships between the two datasets, is incalculable. It’s a level of complexity that can produce statements like, ‘More possible outcomes than number of atoms in the known universe.’ and ‘Assumes voters on other planets.’ Instead of taking on complexity in the data, the Daybreak team took on the complexity of a single story told by 3,000 voters. This, as it turned out, resulted in more accurate predictions than any other polling process. It was the difference between analyzing a movie and stringing together thousands of snapshots in an effort to make a movie of them. You get so consumed with stringing together snapshots that the analysis of the movie is simply an an afterthought. An effort to clear the decks before the next wave of data broadsides your boat.

b) Daybreak changed the environment for their surveys. Because they understood their interviewees better than other polls, and were looking at the data in their stories rather than the other way around, the Daybreak team saw that certain segments of their audience were more likely to be truthful online than over the phone, and so that’s how they conducted those interviews. Changing the environment changes the outcomes of a process.

Postscript: Even with the accurate prediction, the Daybreak poll got it wrong on the prescriptive side of things. It showed that Trump would have to turn out extra voters in the Republican base to win. What actually happened is that Hillary failed to turn out sufficient numbers of voters in the Democratic base, and lost too many Obama voters, who crossed over to vote for Trump.

There is magic involved. All effective storytellers deal in magic. Our definition of magic is that it conceals complexity. Magic makes the impossible possible. Defies explanations. Subverts expectations. The audience does not see the technique behind it. Magic holds your attention here while the secret action is over there. To some degree, all politicians are magicians. They hold citizens’ attention on where the money isn’t, so that their sponsors can conceal where the money is. If your attention is on the deplorable working conditions at an Apple factory in China, it’s not on the billions in offshore profits Apple isn’t paying taxes on. If your attention is on getting rich in the lottery, it’s not on being industrious. If your attention is on racial division, it’s not on economic inequity. Trump took this to a whole new level. He concealed complexity that doesn’t even exist. He had no solutions to problems. He only said he did. It looked like magic to his audience, especially compared to Hillary’s ‘smart’ solutions. She revealed too much of their complexity. Meanwhile Trump is selling a magic at. We’re going to build a wall! It’s going to be a tremendous wall! We’re going to win! We’ll win so much we’ll get sick of winning! It’ll be amazing! Wow, his supporters must have thought, shazaam!

It was about the economy, stupid. I doubt anyone has ever called Hillary stupid, but here’s something stupid about her campaign. Trump basically borrowed her husband’s old theme and hit her campaign with it like a frat boy with unlimited eggs to lob at her sorority house. It was, as it turned out, about the economy, stupid. According to Trump, she and her husband destroyed the economy with NAFTA. He used this line of attack every chance he got.

She let him characterize her. There was, I’m guessing, a consensus by Hillary’s team, and by most pundits, that ‘what you see is what you get.’ She would be transparent. She would continue to play a role and develop themes that, over the past 30 years, had taken her to such heights. She and her supporters took her character for granted. Her opponent did not. He used every rhetorical trick he could muster to pull negatives from her history and stick fresh labels on them. Because she offered nothing new with regard to her character, or even her wardrobe, because she is not a storyteller who understands the audience’s persistent hunger for new twists in the narrative, and new character reveals, because she is more at home with facts than with emotions, she had no effective way of countering these raw, and in most cases grossly unfair, characterizations.

What can a citizen do to counter the forces put in motion by a toxic storyteller like Trump?

Next: Finding uplift in a down spiral.



  News, People, Process
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 Mike Bonifer

  (57 articles)

Mike Bonifer is the founder and Chief Storyteller for bigSTORY, a network of experts in diverse fields who specialize in effective communication and draw on breakthrough research that accounts for how stories affect business performance. We call our process Agile Storytelling. We apply it to help clients improve their communication processes, make more meaningful connections with audiences, drive customer advocacy and engage employees. Bonifer has been focused on new storytelling platforms and practices for his entire life, from the theme park his family built on the farm where he grew up in Indiana, through a long association with the Walt Disney Company, to bigSTORY’s contemporary work with Skype, Wipro, Manulife, United Airlines, and a host of mid-sized companies, and universities such as USC, Notre Dame and NYU. He has written five books on the subject of storytelling, most recently GameChangers—Improvisation for Business in the Networked World, and CTRL Shift—50 Games for 50 ****ing Days Like Today. In addition to its consulting work, bigSTORY develops and produces original stories. We are currently developing Death of Cassini, an opera about the last days of NASA’s Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn, and Crypto Kid, a television series about Tinashe Nyatanga, a Zimbabwean hip-hop music editor living in Los Angeles who advises young music and entertainment stars on their cryptocurrency investments. The basis of all our work is a belief that our most optimistic futures are realized when we build stories together. When your story and my story become our story.