Most professional user experience designers understand ourselves to be storytellers. We’re not just trying to make things easier to do, we’re trying to make them fun and compelling. That is, to tell a story.

That’s because people find truth in stories. This is why novels are so compelling. I’ve read a fair amount of history about modern Italy, but no non-fiction rings as true as Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. When the speaker can make things up, they can fill in the gaps that will always be there in factual statements — the places where an honest speaker has to resort to the conditional.

Think about it. When we are being factual about anything complex, we give the impression of hedging, ironically that we are “shading the truth.”

Which brings me to politicians — and to Trump.

Why is it that he can lie — claim the opposite of what we know to be true — and his supporters perceive him to be telling the Truth?

We find the Truth in a good story.

Trump is a storyteller, and a very, very skilled one. Trump’s narrative — the story he told and continues to tell — is bleak, dystopian and hateful, but it’s also clear and compelling. It conjures rich images and feels complete, like a dark novel or movie. (I doubt he would be insulted by being compared to the character Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.) Folk tales are often bleak.

Clinton offered no interesting story, just a collection of reasons. If you think of Trump vs. Clinton, the voters who put Trump over the top in the key states made up their minds at the last minute. Many people went for the more compelling story.

Think of it as preferences along two axes. Ideology aside (and neither candidate offered a pure stance that would appeal to ideologues of left or right), you could predict that people who find Truth in factual assertions would prefer Clinton, and those who see Truth in a rich story would find Trump most satisfying.

Of course, truth and storytelling are not inherently opposed. You could imagine an ideal candidate that combines the two. In American history, Lincoln is probably the president who came closest, and among activists we might point to Martin Luther King, Jr.

Just for fun, here is my plot of all the presidents in my lifetime, along with their opponents.

When I started the plot, I didn’t realize where it was going. I thought it would show that the Democrats need to nominate better storytellers, which I guess is part of the story. But the really clear message is that veracity is relatively unimportant in getting elected. If you want to be a leader, you’d better be a great storyteller.

Certainly, you can argue with my placements. Am I too hard on this one, too kind to that one? There is nothing scientific here. Ah, but now I am undercutting my story, because I am apologizing for a lack of facts.

My point is: people tilt towards good stories, regardless of accuracy. Why? Behavioural economists have studied this extensively. I’ll explore some of what they’ve found in my next post.

Final note: Please know that I am in no way minimizing the very real dangers posed by Trump, his minions and his quislings. I don’t want presidents to be Storyteller-in-Chief, unless they’re also telling the rational truth. I’m just trying to understand why so many otherwise nice, reasonable-seeming people voted for a blatant liar.

I write about UX, languages and politics—only when I have something new to say. Designer of great user experiences. An American abroad in Québec.