Mark Penn interpreted that his polling suggested that Hillary should avoid the soft stuff and stay on issues. And Hillary thought she knew all she needed to come up with the stories in her life that she told on her stump speeches. They both were wrong.
Originally Published on OpEdNews
Maya Angelou said, "There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you."
Hillary Clinton is now suffering from exactly that malady and it was the cause of her campaign's failure.
Mark Penn interpreted that his polling suggested that Hillary should avoid the soft stuff and stay on issues. And Hillary thought she knew all she needed to come up with the stories in her life that she told on her stump speeches. They were both wrong.
Minutes before the Philly debate, I had a chance to chat with Hillary's communication director, Howard Wolfson.
I asked him whether Hillary had ever identified a list of stories, from her life, to use on the campaign trail.
Wolfson didn't say yes, and replied that she did her own stuff along those lines, that a team helped prep her before debates, but they didn't like to get too specific. He wasn't really anwering my exact question. I left with the impression that he didn't get what I was asking and that Hillary hadn't done this kind of work in preparation. It's not surprising. A lot of candidates think, because they've given hundreds or thousands of stump speeches, that they know all they need to know about how to talk about themselves. NOT!
In yesterday's Wall Street Journal
, we learn that one reason Hillary held off on getting personal, and letting out her softer side was that Mark Penn had repeatedly argued against Hillary manifesting her soft side;
"Before her January 2007 debut as a candidate, the senator's team wrangled over how to portray her. Ms. Solis Doyle, communications director Howard Wolfson, media strategist Mandy Grunwald, policy chief Neera Tanden and senior strategist Harold Ickes wanted to promote her as a candidate of change -- the first woman president -- her Washington years notwithstanding. They also wanted to counter the candidate's high negative ratings among the general population by revealing the witty, engaging woman they knew.
Mr. Penn, by contrast, believed that voters would need to perceive Sen. Clinton as tough and seasoned enough to be the first female commander in chief. Emphasizing her gender too much, he argued, would undercut that. He also said Sen. Clinton would look weak if she apologized for her 2002 war vote, though it was especially unpopular in Iowa.
When one insider pleaded during meetings in 2007 to humanize the candidate, witnesses say Mr. Penn responded: "Being human is overrated." His polls, he said, showed "soft stuff" -- talking about Sen. Clinton's mother, for example -- had no effect. Her early attacks on Sen. Obama, on the other hand, had moved numbers in her favor. "People don't care if you have a beer with the guys after work, or whether you're warm and fuzzy about your mother," Mr. Penn argued -- they care about issues like health care."
There were a number of very specific moments, in the debates, where, rather than acting tough, or spouting numbers or showing off knowledge on an issue Hillary would have been far more effective telling a personal life story as an example of an issue.
Yes, Hillary talked about her parents and grandparents. Yes she talked about individuals who were victims of policies she wanted to change. Those stories are not the same. They don't reach people's hearts the same.
At one point, in the February 21st debate, Hillary was asked, "Describe the moment in your life when you were tested the most." Hillary's handlers were so happy with her response that Terry McAuliffe sent out an email to her mailing list, saying,
There was a remarkable moment in tonight's debate that we had to share with you. Watch it here:
Pass it on."
Now, I coach candidates on how to give stump speeches-- how to weave the issues they are focusing upon with the stories in their lives. And the fact that the Clinton Campaign uses this response shows just how badly her advisors have failed in understanding what wins elections.
The question was perfect, a gift for a well prepared candidate. But Hillary didn't answer it. She ignored it clearly not having a clue that this was her shot at proving herself, at SHOWING her experience. Instead, she tried to TELL who she is. She told a story that demonstrated who she is and what she thought. The question gave her an opportunity to really showcase her experience, to SHOW her inner strength, her character under fire.
Frankly, it's not a question you just dredge up an answer to. You have to have thought it through, honed and fined tuned your understanding of the actual challenging experience-- how you were tested, the dynamics, the pressure put upon you, and then, how you stood up to and overcame those challenges.
Any candidate I'd have coached would have have been ready and eager to answer that question head on. An honest, truthful, head-on answer to that question could have been the home run that Hillary was looking for. Instead, she went for the walk, lecturing about her values rather than showing and illustrating them via a story-- a real story which showed her facing a real challenge, actually being tested.
I've written about this in at least two previous articles:
Tapping the Power of story
Tap The Power of Story To Max Your Message or Campaign
In the second article I included a list of the kinds of stories candidates should identify in their lives:
" What are your greatest accomplishments in your life?
Now, try to remember some scenes in your life:
high point (peak experience)
Significant childhood scene
significant adolescent scene
significant adult scene
Positive and negative people in your life
...You can tell life stories in so many different ways. -- people, achievements, challenges, lessons, jobs... It's interesting to see which aspect a client chooses. There are no correct choices.
The interview fleshes out the stories, gets into greater depth on what were the most important aspects of the story-- what were the parallel tracks, the back story, the climax of the story. What were the hero's journey, archetypal, heroic elements of the story? I will look for stories that fit the pattern of the archetpal "American Story...
The archetypal American story is all about facing challenges at some stage in life, then recovering and overcoming them. A candidate who doesn't have a story about challenges faced and overcome is running a campaign on three wheels. If Hillary had spent an hour or two, at the least, doing a story analysis of her life, she would have had the story of the greatest test she'd faced analyzed, reviewed, rehearsed... she'd have told it hundreds of times and it would have been easy to reply directly and truthfully, but more important, persuasively and movingly, to that question.
Harold Wolfson, Terry McAuliffe, and the rest of her gazillion dollar campaign failed to tap the most important power, the most valuable resources Hillary had. Hillary's response to the debate question reflected that failure perfectly.
But it's worse. If you have experience, then you have stories to tell, stories which are moving, that touch the heart, that bring tears to the eye. Hillary didn't tellhers. In response to the debate question McAuliffe hilighted, she told a story about her being honored at a ceremony.
A candidate needs to understand the power of story. It's clear Hillary did not. Yes, after Penn was reduced from top dog to back channel consultant, Hillary began to share some stories, but they were not about her, they were about her family and others. There was never a sign that she brought anyone onto her team who understood the power of story. She depended on polling and political experts who clearly had a blindspot, a big one, when it came to to power of personal stories to touch people's hearts. If, earlier in the primary season, she'd spent just three or four hours working on first identifying her personal stories and then developing plans on how to weave them with her issues, she would have done much better, might very well have won the hearts of the people with whom she just didn't connect.
The day after that February debate, I wrote about it in an article
, and some of the above comments are lifted from that article. I finished up by saying,
A candidate needs to understand the power of story. It's clear Hillary did not.
I'm not sure Obama is any better at this. With some coaching, he'd be brilliant at it, applying his oratory skills. But we're talking about Hillary, for now. If she wants to win, her only chance is to develop an inventory of stories with real people, that touch the heart-- stories that describe, in precise detail, how she got her experience, how she applied her experience to get things done. These stories can have warts. They can show mistakes and they can show how those mistakes were overcome. But if she keeps going on, just telling about her experience, if she keeps attacking Obama, evoking cold prickly feelings in her audiences, she will insure her failure. To win, she needs three or four powerful stories from her life-- stories that show how she faced challenges and succeeded, stories that touch people's hearts, stories that people can relate to, stories that people can be proud of.
In the focus groups, Hillary supporters describe how Hillary has gone through the ringer, been in the trenches. If Hillary could just describe some real stories that show this, she'd be in a far better position.
If Hillary can identify those stories-- and I'm sure she has them-- then she might be able to pull out from the plummeting fall she's been experiencing. There's no doubt in my mind about one thing. If earlier in her campaign she'd understood and used the power of story, if she'd done the simple chore of spending a few hours identifying the most powerful stories in her life, she would have been in a very different situation. The truth is that her failure to find and use the stories in her life that truly showed who she is-- that failure has been fatal for her campaign.
Hillary has a few weeks to find the magic, not a parachute, but some mystical intervention that will lift her campaign like no negative attack, no sales pitch ever can. There is no human creation older nor more powerful to change the world than story. If she doesn't find hers in the next few days, she might as well start writing up the epitaph on her campaign's tombstone.
Meanwhile, there will be thousands of campaigns just getting going in the months to come. I wonder how many of them will expend, combined hundreds of millions of dollars on campaign managers and experts without tapping the most powerful message transmitter humans have ever known-- stories.
As the campaign wore on, once Hillary moved Mark Penn from foreground to background, she began to share more of herself, but she never really did delve deep into her heart to find the personal stories that defined her. When I originally wrote the article, Hillary supporters suggested that I was proposing that she talk about her experience of the Monica time in her life. I hadn't necessarily been thinking of that, but if she HAD discussed it, her shock, pain and how she'd coped. she would have absolutely reached people's hearts instead of their heads. Showing her vulnerability and the strength with which she faced such painful moments might have been a lot to expose, but it would have been incredibly powerful. But even without going "there," she could have disclosed some of the private, personal stories in her life that truly showed who she was. Unfortunately, she kept them untold.
Before there were words, there were hand signals and grunts to tell the story of the successful hunt or escape. Human language is composed of syllables, words, phrases and stories. Stories have moved armies, started wars, established religions and, even today, the story business, including lawyers, ministers, marketers, publishers, movie studios and politicians is one of the biggest enterprises and perhaps the most important one in the world. If ever oil and technology disappear, there will always be stories.
Obama is an oratory genius, but it wouldn't hurt him to spend a few hours nailing some life stories to weave into his stump speeches and debates. These stories are ALL about touching, connecting with and finding a place in people's hearts. Reaching a person's heart and establighing a heart connection trumps expertise on issues, the use of fear, the use of cold, prickly negative campaigning. Story is the most powerful force humanity has ever invented. Mark Penn and the rest of Hillary's consultants failed to tap it. Hillary thought she knew all she needed to know to come up with her own stories. The proof is now before us. She had it to lose and her failure to grasp that she held, within herself, the power to reach and capture voters' hearts was what cost her the election. And let's hope Obama doesn't think he's too smart to do without those life stories.
Those who tell the stories rule society.
Rob Kall has spent his adult life as an awakener and empowerer-- first in the field of biofeedback, inventing products, developing software and a music recording label, MuPsych, within the company he founded in 1978-- Futurehealth, and founding, organizing and running 3 conferences: Winter Brain, on Neurofeedback and consciousness, Optimal Functioning and Positive Psychology (a pioneer in the field of Positive Psychology, first presenting workshops on it in 1985) and Storycon Summit Meeting on the Art Science and Application of Story-- each the first of their kind. Then, when he found the process of raising people's consciousness and empowering them to take more control of their lives one person at a time was too slow, he founded Opednews.com-- which has been the top search result on Google for the terms liberal news and progressive opinion for several years. Rob began his Bottom-up Radio show, broadcast on WNJC 1360 AM to Metro Philly, also available on iTunes, covering the transition of our culture, business and world from predominantly Top-down (hierarchical, centralized, authoritarian, patriarchal, big) to bottom-up (egalitarian, local, interdependent, grassroots, archetypal feminine and small.) Recent long-term projects include a book, Bottom-up-- The Connection Revolution, debillionairizing the planet and the Psychopathy Defense and Optimization Project.
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