Personal storytelling is the most effective mechanism for giving others a sense of who we are

Personal storytelling is the most effective mechanism for giving others a sense of who we are

At this point, I must confess that I have surprised even myself, having written far longer than I could have imagined about a subject that I have no deep interest in: United States politics.

Of course, the core reason why I have remained stuck for so long on this topic has little to do with politics and everything to do with personal storytelling. From my admittedly biased perspective, this presidential election is simply one of the most striking examples I have ever encountered of a concept I often seek to demonstrate: the strong link between storytelling and influence. For more than two decades in my writing and teaching, I have championed the notion that people of influence inspire others and move them to action by crafting and telling personal stories from their life experience.

Mrs Clinton and Mr Trump have undoubtedly provided one of the most elucidative examples I have ever found, one that I will be able to use for years to come in my seminars and public speaking engagements.

In point of fact, a purely narrative perspective can explain much about exactly how this electoral result occurred. Today, some seven months after the election, I remain convinced that Hillary Clinton would have won easily if she had simply been effective at using this most powerful form of influence.

Given my background, I remain mystified that someone of the stature and experience of Hillary Clinton was incapable of using any type of personal narrative in her campaign. Her lack of ability to define herself by expressing her life lessons, beliefs and values was all the more surprising because Barack Obama had done it so well when he won the Democratic nomination in 2008. Of course, the most prominent opponent that Obama defeated that year was Mrs Clinton herself.

When I followed news from the US in the period leading up to the election, it seemed that two principal reasons had emerged for the negative image voters had of Hillary Clinton. Many people commented that they simply could not trust her, and that they did not really know who she was, even though she had been a public figure for several decades.

As I often tell clients and students, personal storytelling is simply our most effective mechanism for giving others a sense of who we are. People did not feel they knew Hillary Clinton because they had not heard stories from her life, the type of representative personal tales that show others what she stands for and why she believes the things she believes. Furthermore, when I watched her answer questions from the press, or debate with her opponent, what I saw was a series of missed opportunities to get her personal stories out to the world.

Lest one be left with the impression that I am being overly critical toward Hillary Clinton with my posts from these past weeks, I would like to be clear about exactly what I was thinking during the campaign.

In fact, I must say that I was rooting for her much of the time. As is often the case for me with candidates, I was encouraging her in my mind not for any political considerations but rather because I wanted to hear something of what she stands for and where her values and beliefs come from. Surely, I thought, she had some outstanding personal stories that she could use to reach voters, and I was waiting to see her do it.

After the election, when she had indeed failed to present any meaningful form of personal narrative, it was intriguing to hear her campaign team blame everyone and everything but the candidate for her demise. Among other things, they pointed to complications generated by Vladimir Putin and the Russian hackers, FBI Director James Comey, Bernie Sanders, The New York Times, and deplorable, misogynistic voters.

Were any of these matters elements in Mrs Clinton’s defeat? While one could credibly argue that each of them may have had some impact, to me they were all relatively small, fringe ingredients in the overall picture.

The core factors in her downfall were her failure to craft a comprehensive narrative for America, and her inability to tell the personal stories that would have persuaded voters to know her and to trust her. My firm belief is that, if Mrs Clinton had done her job in terms of connecting with voters through narrative, nothing else would have mattered.


Image: Flickr user Alexander Affleck