If you look at the political map of Europe these days, you cannot miss the distinctive success of populist movements in Central Europe, not to mention the alliance of Hungarian and Polish governments.
With a group of participants from the region, we discussed populism in the Visegrád (V4) countries and its relevance for political communication during the online workshop series “The Story of Visegrád”. Here is what we have learned on how to challenge the populist narrative.
Populist parties are present everywhere – in many countries worldwide, both on the left and right side of the political spectrum. Regardless of whether they are forming a government, it is undeniable that they managed something important in recent times: to bring their narratives to families’ dining tables. Would you call it a success?
For me it looks like when it comes to political communication these days, populism has won it all. Against its simplified messages, against the anti-establishment rhetoric and divisive, group-identity-based narratives, it seems like there is no place left anymore to discuss the fine-tuned, multi-layered system of checks and balances, liberal rights and values, not to mention the ever-ongoing debate about where individual freedom ends.
The core reason for the popularity of populist movements in the region might lie in the disappointment of the ’90s after the fall of communism regimes, or the massive corruption that hindered to catch up with the West. Surely, the great recession in 2008 and some may even say the EU itself did not help the region to build up the necessary stability in the V4 countries, to defend the institutions of liberal democracy. These all can be true and at the same time, the liberal narrative failed to provide an effective antidote against anti-democratic tendencies.
Strangely, since populism is on the rise, it has triggered the necessary reactions and now various discussions are ongoing on the liberal side to find the right voice that can keep up with 280-character twitter posts and fake news. I strongly believe this is a tipping point, so let’s dive in and see how we can do better!
A good starting point can be Fukuyama’s prediction on the liberal world, which supposed to be the only survivor of the storms of the 20th century. His statements remained unfulfilled and yet, it did not cause the reinvention of the liberal narrative. For many people, our worldview still isn’t ergonomic enough. Think about the core word of the liberal concept – freedom. Try to explain it for yourself. Now, ask someone to provide their interpretation. You see? Freedom impacts all of us, even populists discuss it and yet, we all understand this word somewhat differently.
With this, we have arrived to one important point that needs to be changed in our thinking. As we tend to be obsessed with the universal concept (i.e. law, concepts such as freedom) we often over-intellectualize our political ideas. I am guilty as charged but tell me if this didn’t happen to you, either.
In our complex word slogans like “Drain the swamp!”, “Stop Soros!” has created more noise than the complex rule-of-law mechanism of the EU. Think about the recent conflicts around the MFF negotiations. Don’t get me wrong, I believe, too, that this is a crucial topic. But do you think our narratives are understandable for everyone around the dinner table? Do you think, you can win over someone who claims populists have won in Brussels again? If you still use the usual universal keywords of freedom, rule-of-law or European values, you won’t get very far.
We must give up this approach and connect the universal to the particular. If that sounded too academic, let me simplify it to the level of dinner table conversation. To find a way for liberal narratives to keep up with the populist “us vs. them”-rhetoric, we need something that people can relate to. In order to show why populism is a dead-end road, we need the particular, where we can demonstrate complex ideas in a way that really affects our audience. We need the most powerful tool at all dinner tables; we need stories.
Fortunately, storytelling is a well-researched and widely used field in marketing. Companies have recognized long ago, that everyone likes to hear stories and the good ones make the listeners care about the message much more than anything else. Therefore, stories are an important part of their brand strategy, and this is what both parties and political leaders need to employ in order to communicate more effectively. During our workshops we discussed this extensively via the below mentioned exercises, which you can try as well. Let me walk you through them quickly.
As a first step, you need a firm definition for your case. To this end, Simon Sinek’s famous talk is just a fine example: “always start with why“. Define your purpose with this exercise and if you have done it for you or for your party, make sure everyone understands it. This will help you to move forward with your story. If you are struggling with connecting the dots in your narrative, let the different archetypes of stories help you to identify what journey you are on right now. These can fuel your creativity, while providing a solid framework not to lose sight. Lastly, check your work with the following story elements to break the noise:
- Make sure that the crafted story is personal. Don’t be afraid to show weaknesses. Contrary to popular belief, vulnerability awakens empathy in your audience. Show also, why you care and why others should care. Be passionate.
- Stories are not static. Take your listeners on a journey and show who you became on your transformative journey. Upset the expectation by emphasizing surprising elements.
- Be truthful, craft a story, don’t invent it. Show your values, show your real character.
- Engage your audience, be participative. Always treat them as smart, knowledgeable people.
Bear in mind, these principles and with all the above mentioned you can enhance your storytelling skills significantly. Please, also note that storytelling is not an art, but a craft. If something doesn’t work for you, change it, develop it and most importantly repeat it, repeat it and repeat it!
In our story with Momentum, we had a clear example for the importance of storytelling in December 2018. After Fidesz adopted a law, which allowed employers to legally require 400 hours of overtime yearly, protests were held on a daily basis in Budapest and across the whole country. The narrative on the issue was clearly particular this time: the inhuman law demolishes worker’s rights by overburdening fathers and mothers who eventually won’t see their children.
This was a clear change from the earlier messages focusing on the systematic dismantling of our democracy and the rule-of-law issues. During these protests, we were using purple smoke grenades (legally available at party stores) to indicate our presence. On one night, the police grabbed Anna Donáth, our politician, and took her to a police station for holding up one of these smoke grenades. After she had been released, she delivered a very personal and passionate speech, which she ended by holding up a purple smoke grenade again.
This picture went quickly viral; all the Hungarian and major international news were sharing it and so it became a clear symbol of the pro-democratic struggle of the opposition at that time. Through these events, we could drive our narratives despite not being represented in the Parliament and it helped us to continue protesting for one month in cold winter with thousands of supporters. Clearly, it also had a significant effect on our European Parliament election results.
This image and the story behind helped us to create such strong emotions that made others care about our story so effectively, that they campaigned with us for hours on cold winter nights. I believe without any doubt, that on those days Momentum had a place at dinner tables.
This opinion piece was written as part of the workshop series “The Story of Visegrád – How to Understand Political Storytelling & Craft Alternative Narratives Online”.
The article was originally published at: https://www.freiheit.org/european-union/here-how-craft-your-story-liberal