Is Storytelling the Secret Weapon of the 2012 Race?

Barack Obama's campaign has given us all a crash course on the ills of Bain, but hasn't given us an alternative narrative of the kind of capitalism that should define the nation as we emerge from the financial crisis -- if, in fact, we ever do.
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If we can all take a break from the breathless back-and-forth about Bain-gate for a moment -- and if you can't, maybe later you can retroactively take a break -- there was a more meaningful exchange that came out of President Obama's interview with Charlie Rose that aired on CBS Sunday and Monday morning.

The president used many of his oft-repeated lines, saying that "this campaign is still about hope... it's still about change," and that he "underestimated the degree to which in this town politics trumps problem-solving." But it got really interesting when the conversation turned to what the president considers the biggest mistake of his first term. It was, he said, "thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right."

So what else is needed? "The nature of this office," he said, "is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times."

That's a spot-on description of one of the key elements missing from the last three-and-a-half years: storytelling. But while Obama has accurately diagnosed the ailment, he hasn't delivered on his own prescription. Where is the narrative that will give us that sense of unity and purpose and optimism? His campaign has given us all a crash course on the ills of Bain Capital and the sorts of business practices that shouldn't be happening, but he hasn't given us an alternative narrative of the kind of capitalism that should define the nation as we emerge from the financial crisis -- if, in fact, we ever do.

But of course, neither has the Romney campaign. Indeed, its ineptitude on the subject was underlined when it responded to the Rose interview by saying, "Being president is not about telling stories. Being president is about leading."

So Obama hasn't delivered, but Romney remains clueless about the fact that the office he's running for isn't CEO of the country. It's much bigger than that. And telling stories, casting a narrative, is an essential element in communicating ideas and values, and an integral part of leading -- especially leading from the Oval Office.

"Stories are the creative conversion of life itself to a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience," says screenwriting guru Robert McKee. They are "the currency of human contact." Or, as film producer Peter Guber, author of Tell to Win: Connect, Persuade, and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story, puts it: "Telling purposeful stories is certainly the most efficient means of persuasion in everyday life, the most effective way of translating ideas into action."

And translating ideas into action is, of course, the essence of the president's job. So that's exactly what campaign season should be about -- each candidate telling us the story of where he thinks we are as a country and, more importantly, where he wants to take us. The best way -- the only way -- to do that is with narrative. "The stories our leaders tell us matter," wrote Drew Westen, "probably almost as much as the stories our parents tell us as children, because they orient us to what is, what could be, and what should be; to the worldviews they hold and to the values they hold sacred."

Stories and narrative, as the currency of human contact, are how we all communicate with each other. We don't sit down with our friends and loved ones and throw out statistics and PowerPoint slides. We swap stories. In fact, we can't help it. "Stories, it turns out, are not optional," writes Peter Guber. "They are essential. Our need for them reflects the very nature of perceptual experience, and storytelling is embedded in the brain itself." Recent neuroscience research bears him out and shows we are hardwired to use narrative to make sense of the world. Neuroscientist Michael S. Gazzaniga, who studies the functions of the two hemispheres of the brain, has uncovered how the left side, which he calls "the interpreter," takes the jumble of data and sensory information we encounter and spins it into a narrative. "Gazzaniga suspects that narrative coherence helps us to navigate the world -- to know where we're coming from and where we're headed," writes Big Think's Jason Gots. "It tells us where to place our trust and why."

So if the part of our brain that is telling us where to place our trust is all about narrative, doesn't it make sense that any candidate asking us for that trust should appeal to our need for what Romney dismissively calls "telling stories"? This is especially true in times of crisis and transition. Over the last decade our country has been through extraordinary crises, not least the failure of practically every institution in which Americans had placed their trust. How did that happen? How did we get to this point? It couldn't have just been a few bad apples. If we don't know why it happened, how can we fix it? And if a candidate doesn't have a compelling narrative for what happened, how can we trust him to get us out of it?

"Instead of indicting the people whose recklessness wrecked the economy, [President Obama] put them in charge of it," writes Westen. "He never explained that decision to the public -- a failure in storytelling as extraordinary as the failure in judgment behind it."

Unlike Romney, at least Obama sees the need for that narrative. The fundamental tension between Wall Street and Main Street is still unresolved and still not framed in a narrative that gives people the confidence that it will be resolved any time soon. And making the entire campaign about Bain Capital isn't going to do it.

"Every presidential election is a renewal," says biographer and historian David McCullough. "Like spring, it brings up all the juices. The people are so tired of contrivance and fabrication and hokum. They really want to be stirred in their spirit. That's when we are at our best."

This election certainly doesn't feel like spring. But there is still time -- it is, after all, only midsummer.

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