Biographies, storytelling and the hero’s journey

Ben Wallace-Wells writes a fantastic article for The New York Times featuring David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s chief strategist, or by his own description the “keeper of the message.” The article demonstrates the crucial role of biographies, storytelling and the hero’s journey.

Barack Obama has currently two memoirs in circulation. The first, Dreams From My Father, is the story of his life growing up and as a community organizer; the second, The Audacity of Hope, is more idealistic in nature with an account of his outlook on current issues. Although the latter has the intention of persuading people to vote, the former did the trick for me. Why? Because it has the more obvious story.

Axelrod describes a video he edited for Obama’s Web site to coincide with the candidate’s announcement:

“When you finish watching the video, you don’t have a particularly good sense of Obama as a politician (you might be able to say that he’s for change), but there is an intimacy — you have been drowned in his life, and you feel as if you know him.

Further on in the article, Wallace-Wells writes:

There are many ways in which [Deval] Patrick’s run and Obama’s are similar: the optimism, the constant presence of the candidate’s biography, the combination of a crusading message of reform with the candidate’s natural pragmatism, the insistence that normal political categories did not apply, even the same, unofficial slogan, shouted from the crowds — “Yes. We. Can!”

Later Axelrod admits:

“One of the reasons Bush has succeeded in two elections,” Axelrod says, “is that in his own rough-hewn way he has conveyed a sense of this is who I am, warts and all.”

I said it before: tell it all and tell it fast. Even the negative, the warts and all. Obama does this in Dreams From My Father, which gives him precious control over the message and his own biography.

But Obama has more going for him than a biography. A biography does not automatically make for compelling storytelling; it is a hero’s journey that makes a story worthwhile. References to Abraham Lincoln and the late Chicago mayor Harold Washington are no coincidence. Wallace-Wells describes how an ad linking Obama to Harold Washington earlier in Obama’s career, made the link to the hero’s journey:

“The ads did something rare in politics, which was make Obama seem like a historic candidate,” [Mark] Blumenthal told me. “They helped move his numbers from 30, 35 percent up to 53 percent, and it became a landslide. You could just about see this whole Obama wave beginning.”

I have started a group on called “Communicators for Obama.” I hope it will be a place where communication professionals can discuss the messaging and messages of the Obama campaign. Check it out and join the group if you are interested.

1 thought on “Biographies, storytelling and the hero’s journey”

  1. Very nice site and blog. There is no contact info on either though. I work in the Portfolio Center of Columbia College, and would like to talk to you about your website.


Comments are closed.