The Power of Owning the Story

This weekend at a wedding reception, I was telling a fabulous tale. At one point, Charlie stopped me to say, “For the record, I never actually said any of these words.” My friend Stacey asked him, “While her story might not be factually accurate, is it true?” He stood there for a minute, and was forced to admit, “Yes.” I got to gloat, “My version is better…” and continued on.

That’s the power of owning the story or myth or narrative or whatever term you like: People can smell a lie from miles away. Even if your yarn lacks certain factual details, if it tells a “truth,” it will be believed. Historians, preachers and mothers have always known this. (I got my undergrad in mass communication with a minor in speech communication, so I find this sort of thing endlessly fascinating.)

Debate coaches and politicians are getting wise to it. That’s why they’ll pretty much always tell you, whoever frames the debate, wins. It’s an election year, so I’ve been watching both parties try very hard to control how the story of their candidates is told. And even though it pains me to admit it, for the past few years, Republicans have been very, very good at this.

Going back to 1980, Ronald Reagan asked Americans, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” That was the decision. Democrats have had some moments of genius, “It’s the economy, stupid” proved to be a winner in 1992. But Dick Cheney tapped straight into every suburban mom’s fear in 2004 when he said, “We will keep you safe. Our opponent will let you die.”

Over the course of this summer, the Obama campaign and Democrats have been trying to paint Romney as an out-of-touch guy, who doesn’t care about regular people. They want voters to think Romney just wants to make wealthy people even richer and he’ll do it at the expense of the middle class. The subtext has been, “He doesn’t care about you.”

Now, if they properly control the narrative, then everything that happens even if it doesn’t support that narrative in every detail, will still support the narrative in whole because it seems to support the “truth.” For instance, Romney doesn’t want to release his income taxes. He’s given all sorts of reasons why he doesn’t want to. But it supports the narrative.

Then for reasons that defy all explanation, Romney gave the Obama campaign a gift-wrapped package in the form of the now famous 47 percent rant. “My job is not to worry about those people…” Talk about supporting the narrative! According to the Washington Post, Obama will be running a new 30-second spot using “nothing but audio of Romney’s own words, accompanied by pictures of veterans, workers, families with children, and other 47 percenters.”

This is really interesting from a communication theory perspective. Has the narrative taken hold? Will this sure up the “truth” of the story about Romney? Will there some other game changer of sorts between now and election day? I’m curious to see what happens from here.


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