Stop Storytelling. Start Storylistening instead.
By Genevieve Thiers
At a recent convening, I was part of a breakout conversation comprised of a large group of storytellers talking about the Democratic party. Among other things, our group was assigned the task of examining why Democrats have trouble defining their message while Republicans have clear talking points, simple messages, and a sense of self that permeates every discussion at its core. This led to a frank discussion about who Democrats are. We concluded that Democrats agree on a few core things, like encouraging every voice to matter, building the nation together, and using the unique strengths in every citizen, but it was hard to condense this message into quick bullet points.
In the tech world, we ask our potential customers to draw a solution on a piece of paper so we can build it. Contrary to what anyone thinks, we often don’t come up with our products in our heads. We might have the vague outline of something, especially if we have lived it. But more often than not, we find our ideas in focus groups, and enter those without even a drawing of what might result. We enter with pens and blank paper. It’s called “finding the morphine.” Everyone alive has pain points, and those range from vitamins to aspirin to morphine. When we sit with potential customers to figure out what to build, we’re after morphine. Morphine solutions answer pain so strong that customers will crawl over glass to get the product. They will pay anything for it. And in the tech ecosystem, where investors answer to limited partners who answer to their own pocketbooks and egos, we’re not going to build vitamin solutions. We can’t afford to. We go for the morphine.
These ideas may be more common in tech, but they can be applied ideas to politics. While there was an agreement during my recent breakout group that the Democrats’ issue was that we they not pushing out the right messages and not being aggressive in their spend even when they did, there was another subsection of the room that was wondering out loud if they should even push at all. The extreme pain point I am hearing over and over from every nonvoter I talk to is that they don’t feel like either party is listening, and cares at all about what they have to say. Perhaps the answer lied in reversing the flow and pulling people into the club by engaging them on the most basic question that none of us in that room could answer: who are Democrats?
One of the things that has become clear in our last few elections is that more than half of the country has disengaged from politics. And when that happens, there is one reason: People disengage when they feel like they are being ignored. Not only do they disengage, but they feel hopeless. They start to hate the system. Ironically, the clearest parallel I have to this is my own learning from my time as a startup manager. In earlier days of my startup as a young early-twenties CEO, I spent tons of time trying to “be the hero” and stay late, churning out work so that the company would see my dedication and understand I was a worthy person to follow. Only later did I understand that it would have been better to let them stay late and be the hero.. It was a hard lesson to learn. And it alienated a lot of people. I could not help but see in the schism in the storyteller group the same struggle. One side felt that to lead they needed to heroically charge ahead and show the way. The other felt that we needed to build bridges so that any Americans that wanted to could charge over them and show the way. It was a clear impasse.
What really began to change the discussion was a look at the current marketing and messaging ecosystem. One group member smartly brought up the fact that most of politics is run by political consultants. Keep in mind, this group worked a lot, but moved around so much that they never had enough in-depth experience to know long-term what survived and what failed in response to their outreach. Additionally, they expected to move on from campaign to campaign. So instead of dreading being fired every year for low performance, they expected to be fired every year, win or lose. Unlike tech companies, which live on the knife’s edge even post-venture capital, answering constantly to ROI measurements and metrics that were set in advance, there is no real ROI demanded of political consultants. There are no pre-set metrics. There is no long-term accountability. So this led to an environment where tossing 40M into TV was a reasonable thing — in fact, it was expected. There was a clear deadline, there was a lot of money raised, and there were assumptions as to “what worked.” Spending occurred mostly on assumption and fear of getting something wrong. Some of this thinking is tied too to a tendency of the center-left to think only from race to race. There is no longstanding institution defining who they are or building an infrastructure, but just a myriad of short-term consultants building on short-term knowledge and then blithely moving on after each race, win or lose. Even the head of the DNC has traditionally been part-time, which speaks volumes about the semi-permanent mentality around leadership and running races.
To unite Americans, we need to shift our thinking from a “push” mentality to a “pull” mentality. Instead of going door-to-door and pushing pamphlets and candidates at people, what if we went door to door and asked them who they were? What keeps them up at night? What do they want for their family? What are their biggest problems? It would be easy to then take this data, use it to crowdsource the most effective potential leaders for the area, then head back to every door with a message that sounded like “Hello! We know that we already talked and you believe in the following things. Based on this, we think that your best choice of local candidate for State Senate might be Kate. She filled seven of the ten criteria you really care about.” This way, the constituent would not only feel heard, but this solution would show a direct correlation to action based on their personal preference. In the age of UX and design thinking permeating products all around us, no smaller approach will do. And this approach needs to be run by an institution that stands outside of races and stands for a party, so that the data collected can be built upon.
There’s something funny about simply asking people questions.
If I am asked a question and I reply even with just one answer, I am suddenly 10x more “bought in” than any ad could ever get me. If I am invited to a conversation instead of having something pushed at me, I am 5x more likely to feel a part of the process in question, regardless of my final choice. In this scenario, the mere invitation gives me power — I can turn it down, but it means that you wanted my voice to be heard. That perception stays with people.
Yes, it’s daunting to think of going door-to-door throughout the entire nation and log each person’s preferences, but there are a few ways to solve this. First of all, there are at least a million engaged activists on the center-left who would gladly engage with an app or online process for a minute or two if it meant being referred candidates to match their preferences. After all, while Amazon’s recommendations engines can be creepily accurate, it often works. Then, there’s likely an entire second group that can be approached with personal text messages via Hustle or similar tools and invited into conversations about identity and strategy. Regardless of what method they choose, again, you invited them to be heard. Millennials, in particular, won’t engage with anything they were not part of building. To get millennials, we need them involved from the start. Finally, logging the preferences of those firmly undecided will take real work. We will have to muster up as much man and woman power as we can get to work around the clock to get genuine beliefs, separated by area. We can no longer be interested in shallow partisan perspectives. Instead, we want to understand what people really want, outside of party affiliation. Then, and only then, can we suggest candidates suited for them, who will work on their behalf. But once we have that, we can have real conversations and not just send down missives on high from stale rooms in skyscrapers with boring rugs and stale coffee. If anything lost the Democrats the election, it was that.
So instead of storytelling, we need to storylisten. We need to remove the word “telling” completely from our vernacular. If Trump showed us anything, it’s that anyone in this country can be President. The average American has a lot of intelligent things to say about how our country should be leading. So let’s storylisten to what they need and want, and let the real conversation for change begin.
Genevieve Thiers is the CEO of NewFounders, which is a coalition of leaders using innovation to reconnect people with politics.