The 2016 presidential election was undoubtedly historic, not only because of the candidates but also because of their storytelling tactics—never underestimate the power of a good story. Studies show that the human brain becomes more engaged with stories than any other form of speech, so for those of us working in a field that relies on influencing opinion to achieve success, understanding the importance of that particular skill is crucial.
In this race, the candidates both branded themselves through targeted storytelling. Donald Trump, being “the outsider” honed in on simple, to-the-point messages that lacked political jargon and overly detailed explanations. He aimed these messages at individuals disillusioned by the current administration—those that felt their voice was no longer being heard. Trump’s brand success stemmed from identifying his audience and effectively crafting the content of his speeches and stories around their experiences.
Clinton, on the other hand, went for a more detailed, explanatory and effusive style of storytelling. She leveraged her experience and deep knowledge of our government to strengthen her brand, which was built on her long political track record. Her brand success can be credited to effective applications of her distinct knowledge and the use of real results that she achieved throughout her time as a politician in her storytelling.
Mark McKinnon, a Republican strategist who headed up communications for the George W. Bush campaigns, once said that the successful candidate is the one who tells the better story. While both candidates in this election knew their target audience and catered to them, they both failed to reach across the aisle to galvanize multiple audiences. In politics, as in content marketing, the story must be compelling, relatable and perceived as authentic, so we took a look back at some great political storytellers that resonated with broad audiences in their day.
Personalize Your Content
President Ronald Reagan is often referred to as “The Great Communicator.” He could crack disarming jokes with expert timing and had a penchant for using anecdotes to deliver and reinforce his message. He understood his audience, made noticeable efforts to identify with them, and used this connection to get the audience to identify with his ideas.
Reagan made very effective use of those rhetorical tools in his 1983 “Evil Empire” speech, which marked the dramatic shift in American foreign policy toward the Soviet Union that ultimately helped lead to its dissolution in 1991.
Reagan begins this speech, given at the annual convention of the National Association of Evangelicals, in Orlando, FL, with a short humorous story that lets the audience know he shares some of their foundational religious beliefs. And given that roughly 85% of Americans self-identified as Christian at the time of Reagan’s presidency, he was also connecting with a wider audience beyond the convention.
He then builds credibility with the audience by noting their shared values—values based on a traditional conception of good and evil. Reagan then applies that moral framework to the Cold War and the Soviet Union.
“The real crisis we face today is a spiritual one; at root, it is a test of moral will and faith,” Reagan said. He believed the Soviet system was a very serious threat to the West, and by framing his case in moral terms, Reagan was able to argue that it was America’s duty to stand in opposition to that system.
Taking a page from Reagan’s book, content marketers should always work to zero in on their target audience’s interests, values and preferences. There is a variety of CRM and analytics software that can be used to gather this data, and once you have it, you can then personalize your content in both subject and delivery, improving the content’s relevancy to the audience.
Be Highly Ambitious
On May 24, 1961, the idea of sending men to the moon would have seemed fanciful to most people, even delusional. But the next day, when President John F. Kennedy stood before a joint session of Congress and announced his goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade, he made it seem almost inevitable. And his historic address at Rice University in September of the next year firmly cemented it in the nation’s imagination.
“Last month, electric lights and telephones and automobiles and airplanes became available. Only last week did we develop penicillin and television and nuclear power, and now, if America’s new spacecraft succeeds in reaching Venus, we will have literally reached the stars before midnight tonight.” By metaphorically condensing the entire recorded history of human achievement into 50 years, Kennedy reinforces that sense of inevitability he created with his original speech to Congress.
“We choose to go to the moon,” Kennedy says. This apocryphal inclusion of the American public in the decision to go to the moon was crucial in gaining support for the expensive and time-consuming program. Kennedy presented it as a collective decision, a moment of national unity in which everyone had a hand.
Kennedy introduced a highly ambitious goal to the public and garnered support for it by presenting it as something that, while difficult, was achievable if we simply worked together. Similarly, brand marketers—especially B2B—can present their goals as one with their customer’s goals and then prove just how achievable they are through joint venture. Be bold and embrace long-term, visionary goals that will require hard work, sacrifice, collaboration and creativity, and encourage your customers to do the same. After all, we’re the business of content marketing “because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
Keep Them Engaged
When the Great Depression was in its fourth year, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt began talking directly to the nation over his radio broadcast “fireside chats.” The positive narratives he delivered helped him establish an almost personal relationship with 125 million people, a source of comfort to many in a time of national crisis.
Then, on Dec. 8, 1941, Roosevelt addressed the nation by radio to condemn the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor naval base the day before. The groundwork of trust and intimacy he’d built with through his fireside chats gave his call to arms a resonance it might not have had otherwise and made it easier for Americans to accept his argument for entering World War II.
“Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in the American island of Oahu, the Japanese Ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to our Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message. And, while this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or of armed attack,” Roosevelt said.
In this brief, but powerful story President Roosevelt expresses the treacherous nature of this “sneak attack,” further justifying his request that Congress declare war, and that the American people support it. Through this anecdote he expressed the gravity of that infamous day and the need to react as a united nation.
President Roosevelt’s speech serves as a reminder that sometimes short and sweet is the way to go. Aim to keep content as concise as possible while still getting the message across. Brevity often conveys honesty, authenticity and transparency—Roosevelt is the prime example of this. He brought the truth to his audience with frank conversations directed at the average constituent—no fancy terms or convoluted language.
Throughout all of the good and the bad that occurred during his 12 years as president, Roosevelt remained consistent in this type of communication with the public. He reminds us to stay in touch with our audience; never stop working to keep their attention and improve your reach. For marketers, this means continuously optimizing content over time to best meet the audience’s needs, intellectually and emotionally. It’s how you’ll get—and keep—your customers.