As the dust from November 8 begins to settle, many are trying to reconcile Donald Trump’s Electoral College success with the fact that he spent the vast majority of his campaign pushing messages that were at odds with commonly accepted facts. Others are beginning to connect the dots between Trump’s victory and his most powerful strategy: appealing to voters’ emotions. Studies have shown that people tend to make decisions based more on emotions than facts, and much of Trump’s success was a result of his adept use of emotional tactics.
While most progressives spent the majority of the presidential campaign using numbers and statistics to fact-check Trump’s ever-changing, always-sensational statements – including Hillary Clinton who turned her campaign site into a fact-checking database – Trump used emotional arguments and wove a frightening narrative to stoke fears of an American identity under attack and cast himself as the lone hero.
Trump spent much of his campaign telling stories that criminalized undocumented immigrants, whom he called “bad hombres,” to baselessly incite fear among voters that immigrants pose a threat to the safety of American citizens. That narrative prompted an emotional response among many voters: “I feel unsafe because I feel that undocumented immigrants in my community pose a threat to my safety.” Trump capitalized on the fearful emotions he helped stir up, casting himself as uniquely positioned to provide safety for Americans by building a “big, beautiful wall” and promising mass deportations. Progressives and immigrant rights activists, on the other hand, attempted to counter the emotional argument with statistics and facts illustrating that the majority of immigrants are in fact not criminals. The Trump campaign deliberately and consistently created narratives to connect to voters on an emotional level, which overpowered fact-based arguments.
But what if instead of countering an emotional argument with numbers, advocates for social change had spent more time telling the stories of families ripped apart by inhumane immigration policies? When one woman wrote an open letter to Trump responding to his comments suggesting that Mexican immigrants are criminals, it went viral on Facebook, garnering hundreds of thousands of shares. This one woman’s story about her hardworking, loving father who is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico resonated with thousands of people and is an example of how a story can be used to shift the narrative to focus on immigrants as parents, families, and hardworking people contributing to their communities.
The power of storytelling to convey emotional arguments is more important now than ever. As the new administration transitions into office it’s likely we’re going to be bombarded with a lot of heart-wrenching stories about the repercussions of this election – particularly on immigrants – throughout the next four years. It’s up to us as advocates, activists, and allies to leverage those stories into powerful movements.
Spitfire knows this strategy works because we partnered with the Center for Community Change and the Fair Immigration Reform Movement in 2013 to successfully reframe the immigration debate to focus on keeping families together. We collected hundreds of personal stories and integrated them into major campaign actions, outreach materials, digital strategies and media activities. The families impacted by the broken immigration system in the United States bolstered the campaign for immigration reform as powerful messengers and helped to create the narrative that the immigration debate is about families.
So why do arguments based in numbers and facts often fall short in the face of emotional arguments and persuasive storytelling? Because stories, unlike data, defuse defensiveness and open listeners’ minds to understanding experiences on an emotional level. Psychologists and political scientists have long held that people don’t make decisions based on facts, but rather on emotion. That’s because facts make us skeptical. We consider facts with a shrewd eye and ask ourselves, where did these facts come from? Do they fit with how I see the world? If not, we cast them aside. Humans are naturally more inclined to accept facts that align with their preconceived notions, and avoid the ones that don’t.
Stories, on the other hand, open up the possibility of sidestepping audiences’ defenses. By shining a light for audiences on the lived experiences of others, stories engender empathy and can even change preconceived notions or biases. As Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal, explained “when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard.” In other words, if you move an audience emotionally, your message is a lot more likely to resonate.
As social justice advocates analyze the election for lessons on how best to move forward, it’s crucial that we harness the power of storytelling to demonstrate intersectionality and break down silos to work together as one. Spitfire, for example, worked with a coalition of 10 advocacy organizations to spotlight the stories of individuals, couples, and families personally impacted by the country’s broken immigration system to integrate immigrant rights and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities around the need for comprehensive immigration reform. Through storytelling, we created the narrative that the broken immigration system hurts families, which activated constituencies not previously engaged in immigration reform and greatly expanded the coalition’s reach.
Want to take storytelling to the next level? To craft more strategic stories that take into account how your audiences hear, process and respond to messages, check out Spitfire’s new Mindful Messaging tool. And don’t forget to check out our new Spitfire Spotlight on one of this post’s authors, Liv Kittel!