Picture this: a cute girl you’ve been checking out from afar is in range. She’s right across the room, anxiously holding her glass, hoping someone talks to her before it becomes obvious she’s unoccupied. This is your chance.
You walk up to her and after the customary name exchange and “where are you from?”–type questions, there’s a brief pause. What’s your next course of action?
Well, there’s the data approach: “Based on my calculations, we are 75 percent compatible. How about dinner Friday night?” Then there’s the metaphor approach: “Good thing I’m a firefighter, because you are smoking.”
But there’s also the personal narrative approach. You craft a story based on personal experiences you think she’ll be able to relate to and trust. Deep, I know.
Maybe it’s not a girl you are trying to charm — perhaps it’s a guy, a job interviewer or the American electorate.
All date requesters, interviewees and politicians look the same until they distinguish themselves from the pack — and facts or one-liners can’t work that magic.
When Vanity Fair’s Michael Lewis asked President Obama how he would prepare someone to be president, he said, “I would say that your first and principal task is to think about the hopes and dreams the American people invested in you.”
During the 2008 election, Obama separated himself from other candidates with an enduring personal narrative that supporters could relate to and trust.
We lack that luxury in this year’s election. Instead, both sides are content with tossing around manipulated data and language to frame the election’s perception to their advantage. This strategy is overly concerned with winning voters rather than engaging and enlisting their support.
A bevy of actors have fueled this age-old political condition. There are political scientists who vouch that campaigns aren’t statistically important, economists who can’t fathom why individuals would support something other than their best interest and linguists who treat language as a weapon to rewire the brain politically.
While injecting more human stories into the ugly political affair won’t elevate the discourse, it will bring an extra layer of accountability and engagement into a campaign. After all, I’d rather vote for someone that I trust as a person than someone I only trust to support my political beliefs.
The introspection and passion required to conjure a personal narrative means that it is difficult to execute and can be politically costly. As a result, candidates that run with a personal narrative usually have a high level of commitment to their cause.
When supporters can get behind a candidate’s personal narrative, it removes the unhealthy reliance on political parties and ideologies.
Of course, there are problems and weaknesses with politicians crafting a personal narrative out of mushy emotions and heartfelt stories. For one, narratives can be exaggerated for effect and used for the wrong reasons.
More importantly, they create an alarming level of exposure and responsibility for a candidate.
To even craft an effective personal narrative, a candidate must reveal their true selves, which opens him or her to personal attacks and unexpected responses. Then, if elected, the candidate is already burdened with the added weight of upholding his or her campaign narrative.
A personal narrative shouldn’t replace facts or issues that frame a campaign, though. It should weave the various strands of a candidate’s platform together with a personal story. Today’s advanced telecommunication allows for this strategy too, since we can easily disseminate personal stories over a variety of platforms.
So let’s get back to that cute girl across the room. How are you going to win her trust and get her to agree to a dinner date on Friday night? The “be yourself” advice isn’t half-bad, but amp that up to “reveal yourself” and you’d better pick out a nice restaurant. Heck, she may even end up voting for you.
Wesley Vaughn is a first-year PennDesign graduate student from Birmingham, Ala. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Wes Side Story” appears every other Monday. Follow him @WesleyVaughn.
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