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.


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Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.