Candidates often get caught in the resume trap when formulating their campaign’s narrative. Rather than tell a personal story, they highlight their legislative victories and bullet-point some policy priorities.
Perhaps a candidate started a successful small business and the campaign is based on that endeavor rather than the blood, sweat, and tears that went into it. I once worked with a candidate who was following this formula. Then one day he opened up about his life story and everything about the race changed.
This candidate had overcome everything from the loss of his father at a young age to surviving an abusive stepfather. He escaped going under the knife as a medical guinea pig because his family was too poor to pay for health care. He lived on the streets of New York City, where he was stabbed and nearly died from blood loss. Later, he was staring down the barrel of a gun, on the wrong end of a game of Russian roulette. But fast forward 30 years and he’s running for public office. In an ironic twist, during the campaign he’s attacked for being an elitist with a weak position on gun control. Then we told his story.
Storytelling can make a candidate stand out, especially in a crowded field or in a district where voters share similar views on the major issues. But formulating a campaign narrative can be challenging. Candidates can be reluctant to open up about their personal lives or want to highlight ineffective parts of their histories. Here are some ways to make your campaign about more than just policy positions.
Interview the Candidate
In-person or phone interviews are essential. Using basic background research, prepare a list of open-ended questions to discover what really makes your candidate tick. Start with childhood. Ask about defining events, but also about values and feelings.
Some candidates are uncomfortable opening up or so accustomed to their talking points that it can be hard to get to the real story. In these cases, try to talk to a few close family members or friends.
Turn the Narrative Into a Compelling Ad
Now it’s time to write your mail piece or script. Depending on the specific story and medium, you’ll have to make a few decisions about execution – such as whether to use first person or a narrator’s voice. Either can work, but first-person storytelling in most cases adds another layer of dimension that can help make a candidate seem even more real and relatable.
Use an Interesting Anecdote as a Hook
Sort through your notes, videos and recordings and pick a few stories that really stand out. These don’t have to major life-altering events. Just find something that’s memorable, that connects with your target voters and says something real about your candidate.
Connect the Story to Your Message
Maybe failing at a business introduces your message on economic development issues. Or a particularly meaningful interaction with a student helps your teacher-turned-candidate claim the education debate. Whatever the link, the story must sell your message. Woven together, policy and personal narrative can propel a candidate to victory.
People want to feel like they know a candidate. Moreover, they want to vote for someone they trust – not just a list of talking points.
Jennifer Beytin is creative director of The Beytin Agency, a Democratic direct mail and digital advertising firm.