How to Become President
Is a good story the only thing we need to make a sale?
A story is not an offer.
But stories are a fast and effective way to prepare the reader for an offer.
They help to establish the right emotional frame of mind.
Especially when the story’s “theme” — revealed in its climax — matches the essence of the offer.
Let me illustrate this with an episode of Netflix’s House of Cards (a show that won’t do anything for Congress approval ratings).
The STORY[Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t watched through the second season of House of Cards, you might curse me for reading this next part.]
Kevin Spacey plays Frank Underwood, a Machiavellian politician who schemes for total power.
In this last episode of the second season, Frank faces a tipping point. His dreams of ultimate power are within reach … but first he must regain the trust of the President.
If he doesn’t, he faces the end of his political career, the end of his marriage, and many long years in jail.
What does he do?
He writes the President a letter.
A sales letter.
He doesn’t call it that … but it amounts to the same thing.
Frank needs to sell the president on his sincerity so that trust can be restored.
Frank’s letter opens with a series of claims. He makes these claims artfully, but they are still only claims.
Easily shrugged off.
Now, the “offer” in this letter is mentioned at the end, and it’s a doozy:
Frank promises to be the fall guy for the President’s current political troubles …
And he proves this by including a second letter — a confession signed by Frank.
The signed confession is the president’s “get out of jail free” card.
But Frank still had to lay the groundwork before his offer can have maximum impact.
After all, just because the president had the letter, Frank could later claim it was forged … or forced … or somehow else muddy the waters, thus diminishing its effectiveness.
So Frank had to wage the battle for sincerity beforehand …
By putting the president in the right emotional frame of mind.
Clever man that he is, Frank accomplishes this with a story.
A raw story that seizes attention by almost literally “racking the shotgun.”
Here it is:
“I want to tell you something I have never told anyone.
When I was 13, I walked in on my father in the barn.
There was a shotgun in his mouth.
He waved me over.
“Come here, Francis,” he said.
“Pull the trigger for me.
” Because he didn’t have the courage to do it himself.
I said, “No, Pop,” and walked out, knowing he would never find that courage.
The next seven years were hell for my father, but even more hell for my mother and me.
He made all of us miserable, drinking, despair, violence.
My only regret in life is that I didn’t pull that trigger.
He would’ve been better off in the grave, and we would have been better off without him.”
This brief tale packs one hell of an emotional punch – the story flirts with a violent death, and it’s dripping with sorrow.
Strong emotions like these make a story magnetic and memorable.
This story also reveals a skeleton in Frank’s closet that itself could damage Frank’s career – so the story itself is actually a preliminary version of the signed confession.
The story also builds sympathy for Frank, which is a good precursor to trust. (At the least, it blunts the feelings of anger and hatred that the President currently harbors for Frank.)
But more than all that, this very simple story illustrates a theme — a moral — that jives perfectly with Frank’s offer of a signed confession.
Only a coward makes himself a burden on others.
And the next line in the letter segues perfectly into the offer, connecting the story to it:
“I’m not going to put you in the same position as my father put me in.”
This frames Frank’s story as a “lesson learned” experience: Frank learned from the consequences of his father’s failure to act … those 8 years of anguish … so now he’ll spare the president that same pain.
“I’ll pull the trigger myself” he says later in the letter.
The rawness and authenticity of the story (plus the sympathy it creates) successfully prepares the President to believe in Frank’s sincerity. (The trusting fool!)
Stories don’t replace a good offer, but they can help make the offer stick by setting the right emotional frame.
Do you have a favorite story that changed your feelings about something?
Let me know in the comments below. And as always,
Stay Tuned For Next Week …
In which I become the Stern Father.