Why Hillary lost the first presidential debate

Her narrative structure is off. And it could lose her the election.

The collective wisdom of the global media is that Hillary was the victor in last night’s first Clinton/Trump showdown. I think they’re wrong.

Yes, she was more composed and more prepared, while Donald was more bombastic and sweeping. As far as the Post, CNN and FiveThirtyEight are concerned, drawing on the CNN poll where 62% of respondents said Hillary did “the best job” in the debate, this was enough to crown her the winner.

You can see why. As far as the poll questions go, Hillary certainly ticked most of the boxes. Reasoned responses. Strong grasp of the issues. Calm and confident demeanor.

But in the most important box — the one that potentially trumps every other criteria (and the one that is far harder to measure in the polls) — she came up short.

That box is ‘narrative’. And Hillary didn’t have one.

The anatomy of a winning narrative

Let’s think of the debates like a high stakes pitch. Two candidates, each delivering their pitch to you, the voter, about the path they want to put the country on. They do this by offering you a narrative — a story — for how that path will be for you: where we are now at the start, what they envision the future could be like at the end, and how they are uniquely placed to steer a course along that path to ensure success. Based on the extent to which the narrative resonates with you the most, you then make a call on which path (and therefore candidate) you prefer.

Anyone who works in politics, business development, or has simply watched Dragon’s Den should be intimately familiar with the anatomy of a winning pitch narrative. It has five steps and it goes like this:

1: Insight: Focus in on a problem that the audience connects with, and create a burning platform for change

2: Inspire: Paint a picture of the future where that problem is solved and things are fantastic

3: Direct: Offer an overall ideology or approach that could create a bridge between 1 and 2

4: Reassure: Detail credible strategies and plans that show how this approach would work in practice, including facts illustrating how your strategies are demonstrably better than those of your competitors

5: Close the deal: Sum up with why you’re the only person who can lead successfully based on your experience, skills and passions, so they have no choice but to choose you.

Every stage is important and deserves attention. If you focus too much on the big picture of 1 & 2 without the detail in 4 & 5, then while some in your audience might well be galvanised to act, others may well think you’re an overblown ideologue who potentially lacks the ability to deliver. Cue Donald.

On the other hand, if you focus on the strategies and plans in 4 and your creds in 5 without creating the burning platform for change and an inspiring vision in 1 & 2, then your audience is likely to see you as a ‘safe pair of hands’. Someone who they can trust to do the job, maybe. But not someone who galvanises their hearts, makes a connection, and compels them to act as part of a bigger movement. And not someone who ‘gets where they’re coming from’.

Sound like anyone?

Hillary’s achilles heel is her insight

The problem with Hillary’s debate performance last night is that she did not demonstrate that she gets there are problems to solve. In fact, she pretty much skipped stage 1 (insight into the problem with the status quo), touching briefly on stages 2 (inspire) and 3 (direct) before honing in on the reassuring strategies and plans in stage 4 and her own experience in stage 5. This makes her sound credible, but it rarely gets hearts racing.

This is why the debate pollsters can mostly agree that she expressed her views more clearly and handled the issues more effectively. It’s also why she may still not have won the debate, or our vote.

Let’s compare the first part of Donald and Hillary’s answers to Lester’s first question about job creation.

Here’s Hillary’s:

The central question in this election is really what kind of country we want to be and what kind of future we’ll build together. Today is my granddaughter’s second birthday, so I think about this a lot. First, we have to build an economy that works for everyone, not just those at the top. That means we need new jobs, good jobs, with rising incomes.
I want us to invest in you. I want us to invest in your future. That means jobs in infrastructure, in advanced manufacturing, innovation and technology, clean, renewable energy, and small business, because most of the new jobs will come from small business. We also have to make the economy fairer. That starts with raising the national minimum wage and also guarantee, finally, equal pay for women’s work.

And here’s Donald’s:

Our jobs are fleeing the country. They’re going to Mexico. They’re going to many other countries. You look at what China is doing to our country in terms of making our product. They’re devaluing their currency, and there’s nobody in our government to fight them. And we have a very good fight. And we have a winning fight. Because they’re using our country as a piggy bank to rebuild China, and many other countries are doing the same thing.
So we’re losing our good jobs, so many of them. When you look at what’s happening in Mexico, a friend of mine who builds plants said it’s the eighth wonder of the world. They’re building some of the biggest plants anywhere in the world, some of the most sophisticated, some of the best plants. With the United States, as he said, not so much.

The differences are obvious. Donald is all about the 1 — the Insight into the problem. In the archetypes of storytelling theory, he’s the truth-teller, the sage. He’s looked at the world from his unique vantage point and he’s seen something that the usual politicians can’t see — that America is standing on the edge a precipice. He sees a country losing the global battle for economic supremacy off the back of dodgy politicians who are out of touch and/or immune to the fall-out.

Is his analysis true and correct? Honestly, it doesn’t matter. The point is that he is painting a picture of the status quo which many millions of people recognise and worry a great deal about, particularly those in States reliant on the declining manufacturing industry. He’s showing that he understands there is a problem — ‘America is in crisis’ — which is what creates a burning platform for change.

From that start point, he can pretty much say or do whatever he wants. Doesn’t matter much if it’s true or feasible or even legal, as long as it’s in service to solving this big problem his audience agree exists. They will forgive him the gaffs and the grotesque statements. In the grand scheme of things, these are just small prices to pay in service to a higher goal.

But with Hillary — there’s no 1 at all. None. There is literally no part of her statement that acknowledges and brings a new insight into the problems America is feeling and facing, beyond a vague reference to inequality with her “not just those at the top” clause. Instead, she jumps straight to 2, trying to focus on a more ‘positive’ message of what she wants to build — investment in “an economy that works for everyone”.

But she’s already lost us, because she hasn’t told us why she wants to do those things. What’s the problem she is trying to solve?

By not focusing first on the ‘why’, it’s harder to connect with her inspiring vision. Without clarity on the problem she wants to solve, we don’t quite know where she’s coming from. And so, there’s more scrutiny on what comes after. The email scandal, her call on Bengazi…these things hit her harder than Trump’s screw-ups hit him, because she fails to position them a small hiccups in a bigger, more important narrative.

Admittedly, stage 1 in the narrative anatomy is a tough one for Hillary. Her background means she is intimately invested in the status quo. This makes it very hard for her to paint a picture of the challenges facing America without implicating herself and her party in their creation.

Hard, but not impossible. She could for instance speak to ‘new’ challenges like rising inequality or the devastating impact of low pay. Or problems that she is particularly and intimately passionate about like skills shortages and education for girls. Or issues brought into the world from outside US borders, like new competitors and innovators in Asia.

She doesn’t. Not at least with any great focus. So while every strategy that follows makes a kind of logical sense, they lack an organising purpose, and so they fail to win our hearts.

But maybe it's Donald?

Reviewing the debate transcripts, you could argue that Hillary doesn’t need a big America-wide challenge to galvanise people, because she kind of has one already. And that’s simply to stop Donald Trump from becoming president.

Her insight? That America is potentially about to elect a calamitous idiot as Commander-in-chief. Her inspirational vision? That Americans can avoid that tragedy if they vote for her instead. Her direction? Strong and steady. No fireworks or grand gestures. Rather, someone who will steer the ship effectively as it rides the waves out of recession. Her reassuring strategies? Much the same as you’d expect — sensible trade deals, investment in green energy, smart diplomacy, tough on terrorism. And her closing punch as to why you should choose her? Well, most importantly, she’s not Donald Trump. But she is also hyper-smart, has a lot of experience, knows the issues inside and out, and is unlikely to mess it up. Oh, and she’s a woman, which shouldn’t matter in terms of her creds for this particular narrative, but probably means she’s worked doubly hard to get where she is and is therefore a pretty good choice.

It’s not exactly the stuff of great story, or of great debate. It’s success is dependent on Donald continuing to offend and scandalise, so that more and more of the audience resonate with her stage 1 insight — that Donald is a potential leader who is unfit to lead. If his staff succeed in reining him in, her insight could lose resonance, and her narrative will flounder. And even if it doesn’t, it won’t inspire action and momentum in the way a more universal insight about America’s place in the world might.

Which is what’s bothering me. In the hearts of many millions of people, including vaste swathes who would never admit it out loud, I fear that Donald’s bolder narrative will have won the day.