My Thatha (grandfather) would have turned 100 this year. He left me with two books, socialist politics and a maxim I later found out he’d borrowed from Shakespeare: “to thine own self be true”.
I still haven’t read Hamlet but after a few years working in and around politics I keep coming back to that phrase. We spend so much time worrying about polls, policy platforms and three-word slogans that our politics can become disembodied. All this leaves a credibility gap that can only be filled with people and stories.
Most people hate this idea for two reasons. The first is the one we’ll admit to in public: that the obsession with stories contributes to the dumbing down of politics, appealing to our most base instincts, obscuring the facts with spin and fluff and fancy.
Of course we’ve all seen the power of political narrative used in this way. But voters want to get a feel for whether or not they can trust a candidate, whether you have the ability to achieve the goals you’ve set out and whether you have the courage to push through adversity and deliver on your agenda. Stories are a shortcut to deeper understanding.
Voters don’t want to know every detail about a candidate’s life or background, telling your story is not just about recounting your past. Every day, every public action you take is interpreted in relation to voters’ understanding of your character.
Your record is a collection of interests, skills and experiences, but that only gives me, as a voter, limited information about how you will behave in the future. After all, that is what I care about most.
That’s why, for voters, there is just one unforgivable betrayal in politics. There’s nothing they despise more than a politician who betrays themselves.
The second, less cited rationale, is that it simply makes you feel uncomfortable. Talking about yourself in grand terms just isn’t polite after all, that’s for the Americans.
All this reveals is an all too shallow understanding of political storytelling. There’s so much more to it than the 90-second “introduction to candidate” spot we’ve gotten used to seeing.
Take a look at US Senate Candidate, Rafael Warnock’s opening narrative. When we think about storytelling, this is what we have in mind, and it’s brilliant! And yes, of course, these spots are the main feature.
But political storytelling is about more than recounting your personal history at set piece moments. How we respond to adversity must also be in keeping with the character we set out. See again Warnock’s response to his opponents’ smears. The story builds on the core narrative, it adds definition but doesn’t deviate from what we learnt about Warnock’s character in the first film. He’s calm, smart and at ease, even in adversity.
So what now? How do you begin to tell stories that reveal your character to voters? I’m not going to rehash Marshall Ganz; he teaches the course at Harvard after all and if you haven’t already, you should look up his work on public narrative. Instead I’ll offer three short thoughts that I hope will get you thinking.
First, know yourself. If you don’t understand who you are and why you act, how can anyone else?
Start with an audit, write out your relationships and history, your personality and your values. Out of those, what sticks? Pick three parts which on balance describe you uniquely and make sure everything you do is rooted in those.
It’s so important not to pick these to please a focus group or a poll. You’ll either be so dry that no one will care or you’ll be found out. Choose characteristics that your closest friends and family would recognise as well as a casual acquaintance.
For Rafael Warnock: he’s a pastor and he cares about every individual, he’s credentialed and prepared to lead and he understands what it is to struggle but carries himself with humility and assurance.
Second, be true to yourself. Whatever story you tell, let it be authentic, lean on the strongest aspects of your character, understand your weaknesses but don’t run from those.
Trying to be less weird, emotional, loud, rash or whatever characteristic you think will make you unappealing will only emphasise those traits.
If you’re dour, don’t smile. Be the dour one with a hard head when the days are dark.
If you’re a pedant, don’t loosen up. Be the one with an unimpeachable reputation to clean up corruption.
If you’re rash, don’t be boring. Be the decisive one who shows the world that the past doesn’t have to dictate the future.
Third, why now? Why do we need your leadership now and not yesterday, why not tomorrow?
Don’t make this generic. Whether you’re running for parliament, NEC, as a trade union rep or building power in your community, our ideas must be embodied if we are to win.
Don’t just say because the world’s a mess, or that you care about inequality or climate change, doesn’t everyone? You must add something particular, what has led you to step forward to lead now?
If you do this, and then add depth with help from Marshall Ganz and consistency with help from your conscience and a great team, there’s no limit to what you can achieve.
And please, if you ever find yourself asking “what’s the line”: quit.
Jana Mills is Executive Director at Small Axe