Many of us are still coming to terms with Donald Trump’s presidential victory. No matter how you look at it, there is something amazing about this event.
Regardless of how you feel about the outcome, this election has been an incredible case study for the science/art of story. There is so much that we can learn from what just happened here.
What I wanted to focus on is how Trump tapped into an ancient storytelling secret that is as effective as it is counterintuitive.
Trump unleashed the power of the underdog!
Every great story is built around an underdog. This is usually a character with a complicated, even contradictory human dimension that people can relate to and form strong opinions about.
We’ve always been drawn to the underdogs in stories. Think about Luke Skywalker, Jesus Christ or Frodo – the little hero of the Lord of the Rings. These are all examples of characters that represent good against evil. But even on the darker side, we can’t help but take the side of personas like Walter White in Breaking Bad, Francis Underwood in House of Cards or even James Band, that elegant, drinking, gambling womanizer.
Despite their flaws, audiences adopt underdogs. Their shortcomings is what makes them so irresistible. The imperfections and the mistakes they make is what people truly connect with.
Underdogs embody possibility, audacity and the promise of overcoming impossible odds. Underdogs are our heroes because they are willing stick up a finger to the establishment so we don’t have to. Underdogs are our rebel surrogates.
The thing is, you can’t have an underdog without the contrast of an opposing character. In their hearts, audiences take sides against these personas.
Have you noticed that in most stories, the antagonist (‘bad guys’ in plain English) are those who are powerful, flawless, wealthy, beautiful, and unscrupulously ambitious? They have the ability to rationalise and justify anything they do. They are willing to use any means to defend the status quo.
As an audience, we are conditioned to distrust those characters. The more powerful the antagonist, the stronger our support for the underdog becomes. We find it easy to dehumanise antagonists. We are not even willing to listen to their side of the story.
Many Americans saw Trump as their underdog hero. He played that role in full. Hillary in contrast stood for the establishment. She was willing to go very far to defend the status quo.
What made Trump’s bid extra powerful was the fact that he very carefully scripted the character of an underdog that resonated with millions of Americans who hadn’t been listened to in a long time. He gave them a very simple message that they could understand and repeat, a story that echoed the one that was already inside their head.
No matter how strongly Clinton and Obama appealed to reason, in the eyes of millions of ordinary voters, no matter what they said simply wasn’t being listened to because it came from the antagonist.
So why is this relevant? And, how does this apply to our business for that matter?
I don’t think I need to spell it out for you do I?
In businesses we do everything to appear strong, powerful, flawless and polished when we communicate.
We like to impress our audiences with clever and complex messages that are so carefully constructed that people have to think about what they exactly mean.
When that happens, guess what side of the story we get on with our audience?