One thing Bob and I are questioned about when we talk on The
Elements of Persuasion is the connection between the five story principles
we use (Passion, Hero, Antagonist, Awareness and Transformation) and the actual
Greek Elements (Fire, Earth, Water, Air and Space). The relationship is more
than metaphoric – or if it is metaphoric it is such a deep cultural
metaphor that you have to consider it as a given anyway.
Case in point: The ads being run by the DNCC against Elizabeth
Dole’s reelection to the Senate. This is a very effective campaign that moves
from two Good Ol’ Boys on rocking chairs on a porch to the even more effective direct
attack below. The message – Elizabeth Dole isn’t really from here any more, so how can she possibly continue as our Senatorial Hero – is as personal as that quiet moment when you are alone in the voting booth.
All politics is local. When a candidate loses their
connection with the unique patch of ground they represent, they are toast. Pointing this out is particularly effective
in the South – new or other wise – which has long memories and gave us the term
“carpetbagger” in the first place. The
folks we see talking in this spot are justly described as “the salt of the
earth” – heroes in their own right.
If you’ve followed this blog since the WGA strike –
boy, that seems a long time ago doesn’t it – you know the deep respect we have for Dave Letterman and the master storytellers behind the Late Show,
Here is Dave talking about John McCain. It is a prime
example of how a small personal story can make a larger political point
precisely by remaining small and personal. Done right, it can be devastating.
“I don’t know if I can trust him.” Have you ever seen a shiv
slipped between a politician’s ribs with more grace and style? And describing
Keith Olberman as “that kid with the really big head” gives it just the right
sense of good-natured balance. Masterful.
Sarah Palin is not the only interesting story coming out of
Alaska. Ted “Hell No” Stevens is on trial for failing to report “gifts” from
“lobbyists.” His is also running for reelection. The DNCC put
together this little gem. I don’t like negative ads, but this one is too genre
perfect to pass up. If you still have doubt that great political ads are story
driven, this 30 sec spot should lay them to rest.
A quick 5-elements analysis: The Passion (irreducible core)
of the ad is carried by the opening sound track – a cross between a political
thriller and a local news stations investigative reporter theme. It establishes beyond doubt that this will be a crime story. The people in the van are our Heroes
(we even see Stevens’ house on a video monitor stressing their point of view is
our point of view). Stevens is the Antagonist “He thinks he is above the law”.
And crucially there is a moment of clear awareness when one “reporter” says
disgusted, “And I voted for him.” Finally a transformative tag line “It’s not
about Alaska anymore.” This is great stuff.
BTW, if anyone has any great Repub ads I’d love to analyze
them. Most of what I’ve seen from the Repubs are tired retreads, but I’m
probably missing something. Enlighten me, please.
I don’t usually comment on the debates. I don’t do
play-by-play and in story terms these debates have basically been yawners.
But one moment from the VP Debate has stuck with me. Palin
set it up early by conspicuously asking Biden, “Can I call you, Joe.” Then later
when he brought up McCain’s record she pulled the trigger with “Say it ain’t
so, Joe. There you go again, looking backwards.”
Biden’s reply when asked to respond by moderator Gwen Ifill,
“Gwen, as you know, past is prologue,” seemed awfully academic to me given
Palin’s down home diction. But now a video has come out that shows Biden may
have been doing a little setting things up of his own.
This video is long – 13 minute – so it is preaching to the
choir, but it seems to be designed to tell the Dem faithful what they need to
know to pivot character attacks on Obama back to their strong point, the
economy. Don’t have 13 minutes? The trailer is only 30 seconds.
In McCain’s defense at least initially he seemed to learn
his lesson from the Keating fiasco and he earned his reputation as driver of
the “Straight Talk Express” by being open and honest about his mistakes with
reporters. But now, in an analogous situation, he seems to be ducking even off
the record interviews. Am I the only one that finds that strange?
Great stories always have an inherent symmetry. This is
particularly true of those stories written by history.
At the beginning of the Bush Administration in 2002 John
DiIulio, who had run President Bush’s Office of Faith Based
Initiatives resigned and called Karl Rove’s minions “Mayberry Machiavellis.” For many the name stuck.
But among Mr. Rove’s most useful political skills is his
ability to see the branding gems hidden inside many insults. Attack George W’s
grammar and miraculously his syntax will become even more tortured. Then Neocon
commentators will stress how “down home” and “mainstream” W’s wisdom really is,
as if most folks didn’t actually pass the seventh grade and most “ranches”
aren’t devoted to growing cattle but to producing an endless supply of scrub
brush that needs to be telegenically cut.
So it is to be expected that the Mayberry theme of this
White House might lead the Rovian Repubs to choose a down home Mayor from a
backwoods little town even smaller than the mythical Mayberry for the role of
And Sarah Palin, who got here training in front of the
camera as a local sportscaster for KTUU-TV in Anchorage, is playing it for all
it is worth. And more power to her. Her unique speaking style, so easy to
imitate and so brilliantly parodied by Tina Fey, is a form of verbal branding that will make sure her 15 minutes of fame won’t
run out who ever wins this election.
That her verbal style is a conscious decision – and so
worthy of praise – can be seen if you listen to how she responded in debates when she ran for Governor of Alaska. The winks, nods, “aw shucks” and “I’ll get
back to yas” just aren’t there.
To see how effective this type of verbal branding can be in
building a heroic persona, listen to the Master, Andy Griffith in his classic storytelling routine “What It Was, Was Football.” One problem for McCain: If Palin is playing wise and steady Sherrif Andy,
who is playing the socially awkward, nervously erratic and occasionally irrationally
angry role of Barney Fife?
As we prepare to tune in to tonight’s Vice Presidential
Debate it’s good to remember that the big story news of the campaign this week already happened two days ago down in
Florida.. That’s when Bill Clinton finally came off the sidelines and delivered as strong
stump speech for Obama. A great stump speech, well worth study.
Who ever wins
tonight VP psychathon it will really just be more of the same – a struggle between hero
and antagonist. Of course each voter gets to choose who is which. It is
unlikely that the debate will actually move the story forward. If you are like me, I’m sure you will be sure your hero won. To move forward
we have to get to the point of AWARENESS, a simple clear moment of decision when we really know what we need to do to make things right.
On the big screen the classic is the voice of Obi Wan Kanobi
telling Luke Skywalker “Trust the Force, Luke” Luke does, and the Republic
That call to clarity, to making the right decision under
pressure is what Clinton’s speech in Florida is all about. And notice how many times he uses the word decision.
Do yourself a favor
and listen to it. If you like oratory, if you like listening to a a great
storyteller capture the crowd’s imagination about something really important,
do yourself a real favor and listen to the whole thing.
My favorite part? After talking about how the mess we are in is the result of bad decisions not accidents, Clinton adds, “We have a saying in back in Arkansas, “If
you find a turtle sitting on top of a fence post, it’s not there by accident.”
Not all stories are words. Some are told visually, some
numerically. The right spreadsheet at the right time can speak volumes.
A headline like the one I woke up to in this Sundays L A
“Bailout to reach
(with every zero in there for emphasis) makes it crystal
clear that the Market Meltdown will be sucking up all the story oxygen for a
many news cycles to come.
So how can the McCain and Obama campaigns get ahead of the
story and roll it into their candidate’s vision of the future? I’m not talking about political spin or
partisan posturing. Any hint of that will probably prove fatal. I’m talking
about how the candidates can use their points of view – the empathic connection
they have been developing for months with the voters – to help us all get
a handle on this problem. That’s what heroes do – they bring us together for
the common good by giving us a common framework to solve our problems.
How should Obama and McCain do it? Interestingly enough both
campaigns should follow the example of Nancy Reagan and “JUST SAY NO!”
The reasons why they should say no are different for each
candidate because each candidates story is different but the fact that they
should both end up saying the same thing – NO – gives me bipartisan hope.
In the next day or two I’ll go into details on the story implications for each
candidates. But to get an overview of the situation I suggest you check out
this interview Bill Moyers just did with Kevin Philips.
Philips first major work – The Emerging Republican Majority – was done
while he was working in the Nixon White house and laid out what became known as
the Southern Strategy. Since then his analysis has crisscrossed back and forth
over party lines. His book “Wealth and Democracy” is as good a macro analysis
of the problems America now faces as I have ever read. In this interview Phillips makes it clear that
current financial crisis is a bipartisan problem long in the making, with more
than enough mud to go around if we want to start slinging. Hopefully we
There is a real symmetry between what is happening right
now on Wall Street and what happened in the 9th Ward of New Orleans
when Katrina struck. Both that hurricane and the financial down turn we are now in were acts of nature. Hurricane seasons brings nasty storms, and stocks go down as well as up.
The job of a government agency – FEMA or the SEC – is to
make sure that as few people as possible are hurt by the laws of physics. But if you are a committed Neocon and believe that if you can’t have less government you can at least make
sure the government you do have will work less well, then the
crooks and cronies you have manning the levies and policing the street when the shit inevitably hits the fan will be predictably
incompetent. This isn’t a mistake. It is the result of doctrine.
According to Andrew Leonard at “How the World Works” John McCain is trying to get ahead of this story by calling for the firing of
SEC head Christopher Cox. Aside from the slight “lets eat our own young” aspect
to this, it is a good story move by McCain. A bad move would have been to say
Cox was “doing a heck of a job.”
As reported in the NYT Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews have been replaced as MSNBC political
anchors. From a hard-nosed business standpoint this is a very strange decision.
MSNBC has been rising in the ratings because Olbermann and Mathew tell
political stories – not just dryly report spin-meister prepared data points.
What’s the difference?
A political story has a defined point of view. That is, it is told by a hero
who lets us know how they feel about the facts (stories are fact wrapped in
emotion) . If the hero’s point of view agrees with mine, then I stay tuned to
that channel. If not, I click my remote. It’s a free country.
Fox shot to the top of the cable
news pack by recognizing that the idea of a purely impartial “objective” point
of view was a paradigm whose time had long passed. Fox crossed the line by failing to report the facts
accurately (famously the largest common factor among people who erroneously
thought Iraq was behind 9/11 was that they got their news for Mr. Murdock’s
organization) but it was on to something. When political tastes started to
shift, people looked for a fresh set of news heroes. MSNBC’s stock began to rise
because Olbermann was willing to say how he felt about the facts he was reporting on Iraq. The audience shared his outraged point of view – and so his audience grew.
Mathews, for all his blow-hard faults, is clearly passionate about politics and tends to wear his heart on his sleeve. Both Olbermann and Mathews are powerful political story tellers and because of them MSNBC could claim
to be “THE PLACE FOR POLITICS”
But all that is gone now, and when
in a few months MSNBC gradually leaks away the loyal viewers it spent years
courting and sinks back beneath the waves becoming not a distinct brand but
just one more cable news mash up it will be the lack of guts of its parent
company NBC to stand up to a little heat from the Repub hit teams that will be
Once you loose brand loyalty it is
very, very hard to get it back. If I were a shareholder in GE I would be very
upset, because the NBC execs are clearly putting their political cowardice in
front of my cash profits. And that doesn’t seem very American to me.
It was a classic
five-element story line. The crowd was wildly PASSIONATE before he spoke,
having been fired up by Al Gore and Stevie Wonder so he wasted no time and moved
on to immediately accept the nomination, becoming the Dem official HERO. The
vast majority of his time he spent defining his ANTAGONIST by methodically
connecting McCain to Bush’s unpopular policies – specifically linking him to
the failure to catch Bin Ladin (“Don’t say you will follow Bin Ladin to the
gates of hell. You won’t even go to the cave where he lives!) and to higher gas
prices (“Senator McCain has voted 26 times against alternative energy sources…
More drilling is just a stop gap measure”). Then he went for the jugular,
bringing up the issue of “judgement and temperment” on a day when McCain’s
nasty side had surfaced in an interview with Time magazine, throwing the press some fresh meat and making “temperment”
a point in the upcoming debates.
At the same time Obama was laying out specific policy initiatives – that is, he was giving us clear
AWARENESS of how we as a nation can get back on the right track. And he ended
on his theme of Change – TRANSFORMATION. So the speeches storyline was
complete. He touched all the bases, and that is the very definition of a homerun.
I’m not usually a big fan of Chris Mathews, but as a
political speechwriter himself he did a great analysis of this speech. Check it
out here. I particularly like what he said about “attacking from a defensive position.”
But maybe Al Sharpton had
the best one-line summary, “Obama took the gloves off but never stopped
smiling, and that is a very dangerous opponent for John Mc Cain.”