The power of the personal story can shape a campaign and a political career. Skim any article about Martin Schulz, the Socialist challenger giving Angela Merkel a run for her money ahead of Germany’s federal elections in September, and you will almost certainly learn four things about his life before he became a politician.
Power of the personal story
- Schulz played football so well during his childhood in West Germany that he was tipped for a professional career.
- A knee injury put an end to these ambitions.
- As a result he fell into depression and alcoholism.
- He overcame both, stayed sober and worked in the same bookshop until he became an MEP in 1994.
Sticky details form a political narrative
Taken in sequence these kinds of ‘sticky’ details form a political narrative that is used to imply character and grit, often in the face of adversity or under-privileged origins. Journalists frequently adopt it as a shorthand for explaining motivation but skilled campaigners are also masters of their own personal story.
As Gavin Esler notes in his book ‘Lessons from the Top; the three universal stories that all successful leaders tell’, everyone who runs successfully for public or commercial office tells a version of a ‘Where I’m from’ story as a way of creating a quick connection and instilling trust among their target audience or voters.
This is the reason why most of us know that Angela Merkel and Theresa May are both vicars’ daughters or, that Sadiq Khan, London’s first Muslim Mayor is the son of a bus driver. In Barack Obama’s case, we had two full autobiographies and a barnstorming speech to the 2004 Democratic Convention to ram home the point that the first term Senator from Illinois was simultaneously the embodiment of the American success story and the change the country needed.
Strong personal stories also hit audiences in the gut*, which is one of the reasons they often survive contact with facts that present the protagonist in a contradictory or unfavourable light. This partially explains why George W Bush, despite being a Yale graduate from a political dynasty, was able to use his folksy charm and cowboy hat to convince enough Americans that he was less blue-blooded and more down to earth than both Al Gore and John Kerry.
[*If you have read Don’t be Such a Scientist you will be familiar with Randy Olson’s core theme that cerebral communication is less effective than communication that hits people in the heart or the gut. If you haven’t read this and you are in comms, please catch up.]
In the absence of an authentic personal story, a fabricated ‘outsider’ one can often do just as well. In the US and France, Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen’s supporters have been able to overlook their privileged backgrounds, often outlandish behaviour and criminal investigations (in the case of Le Pen) because they have consistently and successfully portrayed themselves as anti-establishment types willing to take on a political elite that is actively conspiring against them.
And it’s interesting to note that Marine Le Pen’s main (for the moment), presidential competitor Emmanuel Macron, himself a former investment banker and Economy Minister, has also styled himself as an ‘outsider-change’ candidate in the mould of a young Tony Blair or Barack Obama, even though his CV would suggest he’s anything but.
Which brings us back to Schulz. While no one doubts his authenticity or political credentials, his absence from the German political scene for the last 23 years means he is able to combine experience with a genuine outsider status into a convincing change story.
Judging from his reception at the polls, it’s working.