The Power of Conversational Storytelling in an Extraordinary Political Season
Politics aside (big asterisk I know), this has been an extraordinary presidential primary season. With 3 of our Oratium team members based in the DC area, not only are we able to get past the politics pretty quickly (you need to if you live in the Washington area), but we also spend quite a bit of time studying and discussing the presentation and communications skills of the various candidates.
We just finished another great discussion of the some of the events of the last week. What I found the most captivating was the re-entry of Mitt Romney into the political fray to denounce Donald Trump – and of course the inevitable response from Trump. It made for interesting political theater certainly, but also a study in communication contrasts.
Romney hit the airwaves first – in fact a few days earlier than his actual speech, as some of Romney’s scripted remarks were released ahead of time. Those remarks got lots of newspaper and cable news coverage, fueled a buzz, and with that – the game was afoot. After watching the full speech, it was well designed and constructed, supported with good facts and data, and delivered pretty well. It was clearly scripted and being read from an unseen teleprompter (a few bumps here and there hinted at prompter issues). But the message was clear and his key points landed.
But there were no surprises, as most of the sharp remarks were in the papers the day before and the speech was delivered in a traditional format (rehearsed script from teleprompter to a polite and applauding audience). Classic Romney in a classic format. It suits him well, and it played well with his audience.
Then there was Trump. First things first, there was no script. Trump referred to hand written notes which clearly had been composed just before he spoke – which he showed to the audience several times. His speech seemingly lacked any structure – it sort of rambled along loudly and randomly, delivered in Trump’s classic style – which can only be described as Trump. The interruptions were constant and it was not for polite applause. As I’m writing this, I’m literally thinking “this is a total a train wreck.” But like so many other things turned upside down in this political season, it somehow…worked. I texted my colleagues “How are this working?”
But I knew the answer because we’ve been studying this, and to large degree teach a lot of what Trump has been doing. And again, politics aside, it’s simply brilliant. It’s a like a magic trick, but what’s behind it?
First, Trump may not be scripted in the classic sense, but he is clearly well rehearsed in certain “riffs” or sections of his speech. Those are “grooved” into his brain (like knowing a sound track or a set list) and because of that he can constantly test new language and develop a range of tone and delivery for each section. As further evidence of this, Trump has struggled more at debates – where he is less in control, the audience is much more diverse, and he can’t easily get to the right tone by navigating to one of his grooved talk tracks.
Second, Trump may not have a completely set sequence for his remarks when he gets to the stage, but there is a sequence – it’s what the audience decides – usually by shouted comments on different topics from people in the audience. And he almost always asks them for their name and repeats their remarks. The audience all know his “riffs”, and you know this because they often repeat his most memorable one-liners on cue.
In essence people at a Trump event get to choose and participate in their own Trump adventure. They pick the order and tone that Trump uses as he covers his topics. Say what you will, but this is yet another reason why Trump rallies get the numbers they do as opposed to his classic stump speech.
Third, Trump doesn’t really use a lot of data, he uses something arguably more powerful – he tells stories. And he always tells those stories and delivers those remarks in his own conversational style. Now it may be unorthodox for any of us to try and sound like him (though Jimmy Fallon does a great impersonation) – but it works for Trump – because it is who he is. He’s being himself, and when presenting or communicating with others, being yourself is the your best play.
In summary, there is a method to Trump’s madness that any communicator could and should learn from:
Master your material so you can adapt it and be present in the moment. Go where the audience wants you to go, and let them take you there – keep it a conversation. And tell memorable stories with great lines that people can remember and recite when asked.
It’s amazing what we can learn and apply about communications in this season when we put politics aside.