Martin Schulz Image

Power of the Personal: How a Great Story can shape a Political Campaign

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.

Martin Schulz Image

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.]

Outsider bonus

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.

The Power of the Personal Marine_Le_Pen

Le Pen portrays herself as anti-establishment

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.

Six things professional speech writers know

Six things professional speech writers know and the rest of us don’t

Six things professional speech writers know and the rest of us don’t – is a post prompted by the uproar surrounding passages of Melania Trump’s speech to the opening night of the Republican National Convention.

Many people it seems, thought chunks of the speech had been lifted almost word for word from one delivered by Michelle Obama in 2008.

Six things professional speech writers know

Donald and Melania Trump

The resulting coverage has thrown light on some on the rarely seen backstage manoeuvrings behind political jamborees.

It was also a surprise reminder that plagiarism in speech writing is frowned upon (but rarely illegal).

Six things professional speech writers know: plagiarism is easily done

A trawl of the cuttings around this particular incident highlighted the fact that two speechwriters, Matthew Scully and John McConnell, submitted an early draft of the speech to the campaign a month before the convention. This is evidence of impressive planning. The fact that they heard nothing back for a long time and that another writer, Meredith McIver, worked on the speech with the want-to-be first lady is evidence of the competitive jockeying for influence between the advisers of those who may be on their way to the top.

McIver says that she wanted to inspire Melania Trump, and this included reading her passages from Michelle Obama’s speech in 2008. McIver took responsibility for the mistake and offered to resign. An offer that was not accepted. It is doubtful whether she actually wrote the offending passages or did more than provide them as an example to the third Mrs. Trump.

We also learnt from the coverage of this story, that the chances of a 16-word match in a speech being just a coincidence are less than one in a trillion – this according to a website called is a subscription service that helps students with revision and checks their work for (presumably accidental) plagiarism. Who knew? In the age of the internet, plagiarism is a big issue in academia and is regularly checked for. Professional speechwriters apparently use this or similar software to ensure they have not inadvertently repeated something they have heard before.

Here are six other things that professional speechwriters know that the rest of us are not aware of.

Six things professional speech writers know: it’s an emotional journey

Six things professional speech writers know: write as you speak

  • Write as you speak, not in written English. This is a classic mistake we see at The Media Coach all the time. Written English has a different style to spoken English, if you are writing a speech it must be written to speak aloud. So don’t write: ‘It is an exceptionally beautiful and joyous day’ but instead ‘It’s a really lovely, happy day’. ‘It is’ becomes ‘it’s’ and ‘beautiful and joyous’ becomes the simpler ‘lovely and happy’. Keep sentences short and write in pauses so the speaker gives the words of the script time to land. If you are not sure, try reading aloud what you have written, and see if it sounds natural.

Six things professional speech writers know: tricolons rock

  • Tricolons are one of the most effective and widely used rhetoric devices. The technical definition of a tricolon is: a rhetorical term for a series of three parallel words, phrases or clauses. For example “I came, I saw, I conquered”. “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember, involve me and I learn” Here is a piece about President Obama’s use of tricolons.

Six things professional speech writers know: repetition is good

  • Repetition in all its forms is very useful in speech writing. It will often give rhythm to a speech as well as drum home the most important points. The obvious example here is Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. He uses the word ‘dream’ 11 times in nine paragraphs of the speech. Donald Trump has a particularly repetitive style of speech as noted in this blog.
Six things professional speech writers know

Martin Luther King used repetition successfully in his ‘I have a dream’ speech

Six things professional speech writers know: end with a bang

  • End with a bang. This may be a call to action for example, as overly optimistic Liberal leader David Steel did in 1981 when he said:  “Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government”. Or it may be a benediction “May the force be with you” or “God bless America”. It can be the title of your talk or it can be a grand theme that provokes a big idea as in Winston Churchill’s address to the nation in the face of the threat of invasion.“Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that if the British Commonwealth and Empire lasts for thousands of years, men will say: ‘This was their finest hour.”

Six things professional speech writers know: narrow columns

  • And finally, print your speech in large type and with narrow columns. This is much easier to read aloud than trying to read across the width of a page. Television scripts are laid out on one side of the page only, originally for this reason. The example below uses block capitals but the normal use of upper- and lower case is easier to read.
  • Six things professional speech writers know

    Television scripts are laid out on one side of the page only to make them easier to read

    Photo Credits: All photos are used under Creative Comms licences.

speech delivery tips mike butcher feature

Good speech delivery: get the tone right

Good speech delivery is not so much about the content of what you say. How often have you watched a televised debate between two people – one offering solid facts and figures but no empathy, the other oozing bonhomie backed up by nothing more than some vague platitudes ­– and found yourself involuntarily favouring the latter? One of the key speech delivery tips has to be to practise getting the right tone.

good speech delivery

Tone can matter as much if not more than the facts, numbers and logic of the argument

Good speech delivery: logic and reason are not enough

Facts are the first building-block of a good Key Message. We train clients to choose them carefully, and edit them down to punchy, easily-understood figures which provide a logical, rational basis for the argument you wish to make.  Sadly, logic and reason are sometimes simply not enough.

As every advertiser will tell you, you have to strike the right note.

Good speech delivery: Donald Trump confounds critics, Boris Johnson charms

How else to explain the success of Donald Trump in the Republican primaries! His cavalier approach to the facts has by turns outraged and irritated the political class across the United States. But his tone has resonated with a sizeable chunk of the American public.

Or take London Mayor Boris Johnson, a far more grounded politician than Donald Trump, but one who uses his personality as much as any logical argument to make his case. In their different ways, Johnson and Trump are both using the image of rebel, rather than any reasoned argument, to win over a public fed up with the political “Establishment”.

In both these cases, the facts matter little. It is the impression the speakers create that makes them effective communicators.  They are in effect selling themselves, rather than a message.  It works because people like them, or at least like the idea that they represent.

Personal charm is not something that can be completely manufactured; some people possess it naturally, others do not. But there are some things you can do to make yourself more engaging on screen or loudspeaker; they will not turn a frog into a prince, but they will help you create a bond with your audience, make them feel that they can relate to you.

Good speech delivery: tips to turn on the charm

Whatever the subject, making yourself likeable is a key part of good interview technique. And that usually means accentuating your human side.

  • Sympathy
    Express condolences and/or sympathy, however little the matter has to do with you. This has the effect of “humanising” you and is usually best done at the beginning. For example: “Let me start by acknowledging how hard it must be for people caught up in this dreadful situation…”
  • The Half-Smile
    This usually works better than a frown or artificial expression of sadness, even with the most serious of topics. It is not about making light of the subject, especially where suffering or loss are concerned; it is about making yourself convincing and accessible. Don’t overdo it, especially if public anger is involved.
  • Agree
    This is a bit of a trick: find common ground.  “Ms Smith is absolutely right to say that this situation cannot go on and I agree that the government needs to move quickly. But…” and then disagree as much as you like. It has the effect of making you sound reasonable and almost coopts the other speaker onto your side.
  • Polite
    If you are being interviewed don’t argue with the journalist. Remember, he or she is not the audience, but a means to reach the general public. However rude or annoying the interviewers may be, however much they interrupt or distort, stay calm and excruciatingly polite.  Losing your temper makes you sound weak and petulant and damages your credibility.
  • Thanks
    Always finish a speech with a smile and a “Thank You”. The last impression the viewer or listener will take away is of someone who is happy with the way it went and succeeded in making his or her case.
  • Story
    The human example, the anecdote, can be the most effective part of your argument; the facts and soundbites will be forgotten, but the story you told about John and Mary will be remembered. It makes you sound understanding and caring, relating to real people, not just balance-sheets and policies. We always stress the importance of this in our training and it does a lot to “humanise” you.
  • Voice
    Some of us are blessed with naturally appealing and friendly voices; others sound like an automated message at a call-centre. With a bit of effort you can “warm” up your voice, perhaps by making it a bit deeper, or more resonant, soften the tone. Margaret Thatcher is a famous case of a successful politician who did this.
  • Pause
    All great speech makers learn to pause for dramatic effect. We have a whole article on this coming next week but it is an important element in winning with your audience as the example videos below will demonstrate.

Don’t abandon facts, they are vital part of your armoury as there will be plenty of your audience who need them to be convinced. But always remember that in public speaking of any sort you are selling yourself and the audience has to be made to feel, consciously or sub-consciously that this is a person they want to listen to.

Good speech delivery: three videos worth studying

An example of Donald Trump’s speaking style

Here is a interesting dissection of one of Obama’s most famous speeches.

A man who coaches politicians

Picture credit: CC by Heisenbergmedia