What Frank Underwood and Donald Trump can teach us about storytelling

Politics is a lot like showbiz. If you can capture the attention of your audience and make them believe that your struggle is theirs, it can translate into polling booth gold. Caroline Catterall explains why.

The story is everything. But with the Federal election just over a month away, it seems we’re still trying to figure out the narrative, and get a clear steer on what each political party stands for.

The popularity of the ABC’s Vote Compass – which more than one million Australians are expected to engage with in the lead up to 2 July – underscores just how much the major parties are struggling to connect and communicate with voters.

TRUMP-make-america-great-again bannerYet on the other side of the world, unlikely candidate Donald Trump continues his climb up the electoral ladder, capturing the hearts and minds of many Americans along the way with his vow to ‘Make America Great Again’ – a call to arms compared to ‘Jobs and Growth.’

Trump’s campaign may resemble a Jerry Springer show, but love him or loathe him, you can’t argue he’s successfully built a cult-like following through his ability to communicate a strong narrative that connects with disenfranchised Americans, looking for something better.

donald trump tweetThe truth is, in politics voters don’t often try to decrypt the electoral product offering, meaning most of us cast our votes based on the overall concept being sold to us vs. a particular policy or initiative. It’s no different in business.

Consumers look to your overall package – your narrative – to form their opinions which is why it is your communications rudder. Without it, your brand can easily languish as background noise or worse still, stand for nothing much. So what’s your narrative?

frank underwood house of cardsTelling your story

Putting the real-life stage show of Trump aside, Australian politicians could do worse than take a leaf out of Frank Underwood’s book. The fictional House of Cards President captivates with his exceptional narrative and storytelling skills. Kevin Spacey shared his storytelling tips with the Content Marketing Institute with some good lessons for today:


Conflict creates tension, and tension keeps people engaged with your story. Stories become richer when they go against the natural grain of things so Spacey encourages brands to take risks.  But of course, risk taking without strategy is a dangerous mix.

cummins and partners vicsuper campaign

Click to see video

Our client VicSuper successfully did this last year when it put a million dollars in a vault and gave people the chance to physically hold their current super balance in their hands as a way of helping those people understand a) they probably didn’t have enough and b) they needed to do something about it.

This campaign, designed by Cummins&Partners, created conflict and tension but also engagement and action.


If your brand and voice are authentic, audiences will respond with enthusiasm and passion.  This is not new news and certainly, there are a host of brands doing it really well – Frank Body and the Thankyou Group come to mind – while others remain completely undistinguishable. White noise. But perhaps this rule of thumb most applies to politicians.

frank-body thank you group

Frank Body uses recycled coffee grounds in body scrub

It certainly wouldn’t be an enviable task balancing your personal views, with that of the party’s and the media agenda. On Q&A last week, a number of viewers said they wanted the ‘old Malcolm’ back – the one that stood for marriage equality and climate change.

His views haven’t changed, but maintaining that consistent and authentic voice is a challenge when you’re consistently fighting fires, dodging bullets and reacting instead of initiating. The corporate world is no different at times.

frank underwood ribs tweetAudience

According to Spacey, the audience has spoken and want stories to talk about, binge on, tweet, blog, post and engage with. Stories with depth. To arouse emotions, educate and persuade your brand must tell its story in a way that talks to the hearts and minds of the intended person.

Again, this is where Trump has been successful tapping into a cohort of Americans who may not have ever felt politics was relevant for them, and have been waiting for someone to come along that speaks their language.

In retail circles, the Thankyou movement has really nailed it here. I for one will be switching to their nappy range when it launches.  A great product that does good for expectant mothers is a no-brainer.


Put simply, you can’t tell a great story without great talent. Tesla wouldn’t be Tesla without Elon Musk. Freelancer.com may still be trying to articulate its UVP and convince the world it’s a winning business model if it wasn’t for Matt Barrie, who incidentally is now reported to be considering a career in politics. In the words of Frank Underwood, “politics is no longer theatre, its show business. So let’s put on the best show in town.”

 Caroline Catterall is the CEO of Keep Left


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