Your Campaign Message: Understanding the Personal Narrative
by National Democratic Training Committee, @traindems
A Quick Recap
Let’s quickly review the importance of storytelling and how your personal narrative fits in.
In part one (May 2018 IDCCA Newsletter), we went over the difference between storytelling and speech making: we saw that where speech making is often static and one-sided, storytelling is dynamic and personal.
What makes storytelling powerful is its transformative nature. Your story can be used in different contexts with different people — and it is that fluidity that is powerful. It can be used in virtually any setting if you tailor your content to your audience AND end with a call to action.
We also established that the personal narrative is the story of who you are. It rounds out your campaign message by adding the element of “you” to the other components of your message. Your community and its issues are only part of why you’re running, but it’s the personal narrative that expands the story and allows you to build authentic, values-based relationships.
Part one also reviewed the different components of the personal narrative: self, us, and now. Now, we’re going to discuss how to construct a story of self.
If you didn’t complete the questions I left you with at the end of part one, I’d highly recommend going back to those. You’ll be able to craft your own story while reading this blog if you go back to part one and give those some thought.
In this article, we’ll be diving into the story structure, as well as how to construct a story of self. So, let’s get into it.
The Story of Self
We defined the story of self in our last blog as a story that “invites others to be in a relationship with you; a call to leadership.” But what does that actually look like?
It is often said that “knowledge is power.” What this means is that access to information, whether qualitative or quantitative, allows people to make decisions and feel connected to the issue at hand.
What makes the story of self-persuasive is the fact that it invites others to be in a relationship with you. As you share your story, you are opening up to your audience about personal experiences you have had that influence who you are today.
Taking the first step and opening the door to real, authentic human interaction is the most powerful thing you can do in your campaign. What it does is allows voters to see themselves in you and relate to your campaign.
Here’s a quick breakdown of what the story of self is:
- Why you do the work you do — in this case, why you were compelled to run for office
- A story that is unique to your experience, but broad enough that your audience can relate to it
- A tool that is used to persuade people to vote for and support you
The effectiveness of your story is determined by what experience you pick, but also by the structure of how you tell it. The best way to keep your audience engaged is to not give away the ending. Let’s break down the structure of your story.
This story structure is universally accepted in storytelling. You ought to use this in your stories of us and now, not just for your story of self.
(Side note: the ideas we’re talking about today are based on Marshall Ganz’s research on social movements. If you’re interested in learning more about social activism and organizing, his research is a great place to start.)
To help better explain the concepts in this blog, we’ll be using Luvvie Ajayi’s TED Talk “Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.” I suggest watching it before we get into the nitty gritty details, but don’t worry — I’ll have timestamps to help guide you along.
Your story needs a compelling narrative. In part one, I asked you to consider the challenges that you’ve faced in your life. You can use any kind of challenge from any part of your life, so long as you ultimately find it compelling.
Were you part of a club in college that pushed for change in your university’s administration? Did you have a major conflict in your PTA with another member? Has a family member been a major obstacle to your success in any way?
These are the kinds of challenges people are looking for. Don’t worry if you don’t have some exhilarating story about a time you looked death in the eye and survived — most people don’t.
Having a simpler story is an advantage. Your story will likely be very relatable to the members of your audience. It just all depends on how you frame your challenge.
Here are some questions to consider when thinking about your specific scenario:
- Why do you feel it was a challenge?
- What was challenging about it?
- Why was it your challenge?
We’ll talk about how challenges apply to the stories of us and now, but in your story of self, your challenge is something you have faced as an individual that is separate from any kind of organizational work you’ve done.
Your individual story can be a scenario that happened specifically to you in the past, like a conflict you managed or a significant personal choice you had to make. Alternatively, it can be a shared collective experience that you have faced; for example, you can tell a story about a time you faced discrimination because of an identity you share with several other people.
The story of self-showcases your individuality — be sure that you are the main focus.
Since this is the beginning of your story, you need to set the scene. Where are you? How old are you? Are there any significant characters that you should introduce? Include details to make your story come to life, but not so many that your audience gets lost or bored with too much imagery.
Let’s apply this to our example: Luvvie really starts telling her story around the 1:50 mark. She gives us background on her dreams of being a doctor as a child and how that quickly changed once she realized she hated chemistry.
Luvvie’s challenge doesn’t come from her losing her marketing job in 2010 — that’s just part of it. Her challenge comes from her struggle with her accepting her identity as a writer and owning that passion as a profession. She’s fearful of what being a writer means — less pay and the lack of job security.
She’s established her challenge; now we’ll see what she decides to do about it.
Once you’ve set up the challenge in your story, it’s time to move on to the rising action.
This section includes the instrumental part of decision-making. In this section, you show how you react to your challenge and what you decided to do about it.
This is the most active part of your story. You can talk your audience through the different options you considered and what the process of implementing your decision looked like.
Some questions you should ask yourself include:
- Why did you make the choice you did?
- Where did you get the hope and/or courage — or not?
- How did you feel throughout this decision-making process?
You want to convey to your audience the same things that you felt during this time in your life.
Don’t be afraid to show them any fear or anxiety you experienced — remember, it’s okay to be vulnerable. Use that experience to connect to your audience. It’s easier to make connections and people will feel invested in your story if you show them that fear. (Plus, it makes for a really good story. All good storytelling has a low emotional point to make a satisfying ending.)
Let’s go back to Luvvie: she moves into the “choice” portion of her story around 3:08.
Luvvie’s challenge is dealing with fear. She reflects on the impact fear has on our decision-making; she chooses to not let fear dictate her life. The following narrative she gives us is part of her choice because she’s elaborating on how great that choice was for her, we’re not quite yet at what she wants us to learn from her experiences.
She talks about 2015 being her year to do the things that scare her and tells us about how wonderful zip-lining and swimming with dolphins in the Dominican Republic was. She tells us that she wrote her book and finally came around to owning her identity as a writer.
The most important little story she tells us about is skydiving, which she links to her overall message of dealing with fear and doing things anyway. It’s what brings us to her outcome.
The denouement. The resolution. The catharsis. This part takes on a lot of names, but they pretty much mean the same thing: the end.
This is where you wrap your story up, loose ends and all.
Your story should have a natural ending, since you lived it out. You want to tell a story that has a clear ending, and not a situation that you’re in the middle of currently. While it can be helpful to share the challenges you’re facing now, this isn’t the best opportunity for that kind of storytelling.
The story you’re telling must move people to action. That’s only possible with a satisfying ending.
Consider these questions when writing your ending:
- How did the outcome feel?
- Why did it make you feel that way?
- What did it teach you?
- What do you want to teach us?
- How do you want us to feel?
You must really pay attention to those last two questions: what do you want to leave the audience with? What thoughts should they have in their head when you finish telling your story? What do you want them to be thinking about at 3 am when they’re still reflecting on your story?
Okay, that might be a little extreme. But that’s the ultimate affect you want to have on your audience. Your ending is crucial because it not only wraps up your story, but it’s also the critical point of teaching your audience exactly what you wanted to get across.
It should be clear to the audience why they should care about your story. Your ending is your last chance to hit that point home.
Let’s wrap up Luvvie’s example: she gets into the outcome of her story around 5:30, about halfway through her TED Talk, leaving her a lot of room to really focus on what she learned and what she wants us to learn.
Luvvie tells us that comfort is overrated. She says that her values can only be upheld if she goes out of her comfort zone to call out the negative things she sees in the world. She uses her skydiving analogy to hit her point home: being honest and maintaining integrity can require jumping off a plane. It’s terrifying, but it’s necessary.
Luvvie closes out her TED Talk by speaking more on how important it is to be a person who is unafraid to speak up when it’s necessary to.
The Big Picture: Campaign Messaging and Story of Self
We just discussed a lot. To put all this into perspective, let’s take a big picture look at what we’ve covered.
Your overall story structure should look something like this:
- CHALLENGE: the premise of your story and why it was your challenge
- CHOICE: the decision-making process of how you dealt with this challenge, why you made the decisions you did, and how you felt about them
- OUTCOME: what you learned from this experience and what you want to teach us
If your story follows this model, then you’ll have a well-rounded story that compels people to act.
Now that you’ve written your story of self, I’m going to ask you to broaden your scope a little bit.
Next month, in the final installment on our personal narrative series, we’re going to be talking about the stories of us and now.
Until then, I want you to consider the community you’re in, specifically your campaign’s community.
Think about your volunteers and supporters: what do you all stand for?
Can you identify a common set of ideals that links the individuals of your community? If so, write them down.
You also want to think about the sense of urgency that fuels your campaign. Why, other than the election date, do you need your audience to act now? Not tomorrow, not a week from today, but now.
This is a somewhat vague prompt, but our experiences and motivations all differ. Since you’ve done so much inward reflection, it’s time to start thinking about your broader community.
In the meantime, I’d suggest taking NDTC’s courses on Strategic Scheduling and Campaign Events. You’ve put a lot of effort into creating your personal narrative — be sure you have a plan to connect with your supporters, so you can share it with them!