Why Barack Obama won the second debate.

I’m in Orlando, Florida as I type this, prepping to speak at Elliott Masie’s Learning 2012 Conference with the likes of Susan Cain, Jenny Zhu and Colin Powell (!).  What the eff will I be talking about during this conference with attendees from Google, Southwest Airlines, Intel and the CIA that could have relevance?

I’ll be talking about the same stuff that won Barack Obama the second debate:  storytelling.

Ok, truth is Barack won for a whole host of reasons (and Mitt lost for a whole host of reasons), but one of the reasons our current prez is such a great orator is his ability to tell a story.  He’ll tell you about his grandmother, or of his daughters and what they talk about at the dinner table, or when he met Michelle, or when he met a still employed auto worker, or a kid with too many college loans, etc.  And, those stories will of course relate to his position, his mission, and the reason why he thinks you should vote for him.

Storytelling is one of the most tried-and-true persuasion techniques.  It’s a sure-fire way to affect your audience . . . and done the right way, it will get an audience to accept your line of thinking, more than just telling them to accept that line of thinking.  It’s like “Show, don’t tell,” or rather, “Story, don’t say.”

That’s why folks like Obama, and other great negotiators, salesmen, and anyone looking to influence a group of people, use stories to increase the impact of their message.

I was thinking about this tonight as I prepped for my session, and it served as a great reminder for all dramatists out there.

Playwrights are obviously storytellers, right?  And they have something to “say.”  They have a way of thinking about an issue that they want the audience to accept.  But as much as they want to scream that message from the top of their lungs, they, more than politicians and salesmen and negotiators, have to remember that the story comes first.  And their story has to be entertaining.  A play is not a debate.  It’s not a lecture.  It’s primary objective is to entertain.  And the message, comes second (in fact, the best messages aren’t even noticed).

This is hard to remember, especially when writing a play about an important issue.  (A great example of ‘storytelling’ done perfectly is Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which was about McCarthyism, but you’d never know it at first read).

My two step process for playwrights would go something like this:

1.  Decide what it is you want to say.
2.  Forget about what you want to say and write a story that says it for you instead.

The great storytellers are the great leaders and shapers of society, whether they are politicians or playwrights.  Tell the right story, and you can change the world.


(Got a comment? I love ‘em, so comment below!  Click here then scroll down to say what’s on your mind!)



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  • Rich says:

    While most flash polls and more than a few pundits credited Pres. Obama with marginally winning the 2nd debate Gov. Romney has since moved up in all the major polls, thus I question whether he really lost. However, your point about the power of storytelling to spellbind an audience, either of theater goers or voters, is spot on.

  • Ed from CT says:

    Great post, Ken! Thanks!

  • Randy Bobish says:

    Stories work because they activate empathy thereby allowing and inviting the audience (or reader) to imagine themselves in a specific situation. This is the best way for a point to truly be understood – when someone can personalize that different perspective. You may not ultimately agree with the point being made (that’s sympathy), but at least you will “get it.” I think this is one of the main reasons most of us in theatre love it so much.

  • Michael Killingsworth says:

    And what a superb job you did today Ken at the keynote as well as the follow-on workshop, especially how you described through storytelling that the theater connects to the audience just as the Learning Professionals should be connecting to the learner. We should find a way to engage prior to the production/course and assure the performance/delivery is inspirational, engaging, and personal. Many thanks!

  • Hugh Murphy says:

    Love your way of getting votes for Obama, the late deceased Max Bygraves would’ve loved it. His catch-phrase was “I wanna tell you a storyyyyy”. Just sent The Grandeur of Delusions to your office – it needs cut but I don’t know where.



  • Ken, thank you for this BEAUTIFUL post. As I head into another rehearsal/writing session, your two pointers will be posted on the wall.

  • Yvette Heyliger says:

    Ken: I am an Organizing Fellow for Obama’s grassroots campaign. Barack’s technique of connecting a human story to his political message, has been a guiding principal for me when talking to citizens in my volunteer work. For me, it has been more like connecting heart to heart with people. You are right, this is a great lesson for playwriting, as well. People don’t want to be preached to. If you tell them a story, they can “walk in another mans shoes” more easily and come out on the other side if not changed, then at least able to see another side of an issue or event. And maybe they “cast their vote” in the box office with ticket sales. But more importantly perhaps, you (the playwright) have planted a seed or brought about some inner change in the audience member that makes us all better human beings and citizens of the world community.

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