Obama’s Great Storytelling Isn’t About Style
He’s tall. He’s handsome. He’s energetic. You look at Barack Obama and assume he keeps audiences captive with his personality alone. In fact, it’s easy to think storytelling is a gift, like blond hair, blue eyes, or the ability to drink green smoothies without choking.
That isn’t the case. The truth is, all stories have a pattern.
You were probably told that 15 years ago, but Mrs. Patterson was a boring teacher. You didn’t listen. You didn’t care what the difference between rising and falling action was, and you certainly didn’t want to know about what a climax was.
But now you’re an adult, and all the marketing gurus are talking about the importance of telling better stories, whatever that means.
The first piece of good news is this — you don’t have to read every Lord of the Rings book in order to understand how to tell good stories. In fact, you probably don’t have to read a single book at all. You only need to grasp the concept of what a story actually is.
That leads me to the second piece of good news. It’s very easy to understand what a story actually is:
“A story is a character who wants something and overcomes conflict in order to get it.”
Like all good writers, I stole this definition from someone else.
Forget antagonists and protagonists. Forget metaphors. Forget symbolism. You only need a character, a conflict, and a victory. No matter what your story is about, how you’re telling it, or what platform it lives on, this is the pattern of storytelling.
Although Barack Obama tells stories with style, the stories themselves ring true because they follow the pattern. In order to illustrate this, let’s take a look at a speech he gave about his 2008 campaign when he met a mysterious woman in a pink hat who changed the way he looked at the world forever.
Part 1: A Character
“I was campaigning for the presidency in 2008. I had flown into South Carolina.”
Don’t miss this critical line.
In order for a story to resonate, the audience has to understand the character. With 15 words, Obama takes us out of the vague cloud that was his eight-year administration, and into one exact moment.
The main character of this story is Senator Barack Obama. Not President Barack Obama. He is asking us to go back in time before his eight years as commander in chief. It is 2008, and Election Day is looming. At this moment in time, Obama had no idea whether he would be president or not.
What does he want? We don’t actually know yet.
Part 2: A Character Who Wants Something and Overcomes Conflict
“The alarm goes off, and I feel terrible. I am exhausted. I think I’m coming down with a cold. I open up the curtains. It’s pouring down rain outside. Pouring down rain. Horrible day. I get the newspaper outside my door, and there’s a bad story about me in the New York Times.”
Notice that Obama has spent no extra time characterizing himself. We already know who our character is, where he is, and what he is doing. Now, we need to see him get kicked around.
Immediately, our main character is pummeled by obstacles he does not want to face. He does not really want to get up. He does not really feel well. The weather is miserable.
Despite this, he powers through and gets dressed. Why? We still don’t know. We are only aware something is driving him.
“I get dressed, shave, walk out. And my umbrella blows open. Does that ever happen to you? And I get soaked! Soaked! I’m just soaked. I get in the car and ask “How long is it going to take to get to Greenwood?” The driver says, “an hour and a half.” Finally, we get there and I walk out and go in. There are maybe 15 to 20 people there. And… I gotta tell you, they didn’t look any happier to see me than I was to see them.”
Let me make a confession quickly: this is the only part of the story I don’t believe. Did his umbrella blow out? Really? This seems like an extra detail sprinkled on for dramatic effect, and it hints toward a very long deep discussion about capital-T Truth and storytelling truth. We don’t have time for that right now. Even if it didn’t happen, it’s a harmless exaggeration.
What’s more important is to remember the ratio of character sentences to conflict sentences. So far, Obama has only spoken two sentences about himself, and 15 sentences about the conflict he is facing.
After those 15 sentences, we face 15 grumpy people. 15 people can’t swing a state. 15 people can’t win the presidency. 15 people can’t do anything, right?
Nevertheless, Barack persisted.
“So I go around the room and say “Hello, how do you do? What do you do?” But they’re not really feeling it right now. And suddenly I hear this voice from the back that says “FIRED UP.” and everyone else in the room says “FIRED UP.” Then, the voice says “READY TO GO!” and I everyone else says “READY TO GO!” And I don’t know what’s going on. I’m starting to think these people are crazy.”
This is a turning point in our story. He’s recovered from the rain and the drive. He’s resolved to talking to this tiny audience. This is important. We need to see the hero make an effort to overcome the conflict. We need to see him fail. The sentence “they’re not really feeling it right now” tells us Obama is still struggling.
Now, a random audience member is hollering nonsense at him.
What the heck is going on?
“And then I look in the back of the room. And there’s this middle aged woman. She’s got a big church hat… turns out, she holds a position in the local NAACP office… where she goes, she says this chant: “FIRED UP. READY TO GO.” She just does this thing. But the interesting thing is after a while, I’m starting to get kind of fired up. I’m starting to feel like I’m ready to go.”
This is the boss battle. Barack Obama vs. all the enemies he faced so far: doubt, fear, sickness, boredom, annoyance. Everything has come to a head.
Notice that Barack himself is not the one instigating this change. It’s the random lady in the pink hat. This, too, is a tried and true storytelling mechanism. Luke Skywalker has Yoda. Scott Pilgrim has Ramona Flowers. And Barack Obama has this random lady.
She is about to lead him to victory.
Part 3: A Character Who Wants Something and Overcomes Conflict in Order to Get It
“All those negative thoughts and bad memories start drifting away. And it just goes to show you how one voice can change a room. And if it can change a room, it can change a city. And if it can change a city, it can change a state. And if it can change a state, it can change a nation. And if it can change a nation, IT CAN CHANGE THE WORLD.”
It is only at this point that we understand what our Barack character really wanted in this story. He wanted belief. He shaved and dressed in spite of potential sickness. He walked through mud and rain and grumpy faces. He tossed aside the negative press in the New York Times. He withstood a long drive to a small crowd.
He did all of these things to receive one insight — a singular voice in a crowd that would help him keep going. Obama left his meeting that day assured that he’d gained support from a small, but mighty, force.
And when you’re on a mission to win the most powerful office in the land, a day like this can make all the difference.
Barack, of course, delivers this story with his well-known charisma and fervor. The whole thing is worth listening to, but that energy is quickly forgotten if he’s not using the principles of storytelling to begin with.
He understands that every story must have a character who wants something and overcomes conflict in order to get it. That’s the pattern, forever and always. The style Obama brings to the table is just extra sauce on a very good steak.
Storytelling isn’t a mystery, but it does take practice to feel natural. There’s nothing worse than a poorly concealed formula.
However, if you care enough to learn the principles of storytelling, if you practice them enough to spin a tale with ease, if you learn how to seamlessly slide story elements into your marketing, there’s no reason you can’t capture a massive audience — no oval office needed.