Telling stories

What Sarah Palin’s Facebook page can teach us about writing

Posted by southwrite on August 24, 2009

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No that’s not a joke. And, no, this isn’t a critique of poor writing style and all the things you shouldn’t be doing with the written word. While the former Alaska governor and heroine to Soccer Moms everywhere has been the butt of more than a few jokes and Saturday Night Live impressions, she understands some very important things about writing that we should all take to heart.

While nobody has seen her planned book – which she’s writing with co-author Lynn Vincent — most people are already familiar with her writing through Facebook. There she treated her many “friends” to a now famous post about “death panels.”

In case you’ve been trekking in the Alaskan outback and missed it here’s the entry:

“The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s “death panel” so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their “level of productivity in society,” whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.”

Nobody will accuse Palin of a lyrical approach to language, but she (or her ghost writing staffer) clearly understands one thing – writing is about connecting with an audience and getting your message across.

The “death panels” idea reached into the dark lonely place inside many people and stoked the fear that we all have about our own mortality. It vividly painted an image of a faceless, soulless government bureaucrat deciding that they weren’t entitled to the care that might allow them to keep on living, seeing their families, playing with their children….well you get the idea.

The fact that it was a complete distortion of the legislation really didn’t matter. It was effective.

Palin understands that people who are not engrossed with a particular subject need a vivid and simple  image to remember what you’re telling them. Once a powerful idea is implanted in someone mind it will stay there even if it’s followed by vigorous denial, says physician and behavioral scientist Peter Ubel.

When an idea is then picked up and repeated over and over again by the malicious or simply credulous, it takes on a life of its own. People remember the colorful phrase, but quickly forget the less colorful attempts to debunk it. In some cases, the denials just serve to give the story even more life.

The initial rumor can then only be counteracted when opponents “create powerful images to counter those myths…” explains Ubel.

While I’m not suggesting you go out and make stuff up – even if you’re in politics – Palin can serve as a guide for communicators in any field. Whether you’re writing sales copy or a news story, if you want to make readers remember your words you have to give them something to remember.

It’s essential not just to think about what you want to communicate, but how it will touch those you’re trying to reach. Creating those images can be easy if you can play off deep-seated desires and anxieties.

For example, if you’re a small boutique firm selling financial services maybe you want to create an image of the dangers poised by a large company that cares only about selling their products, not what is best for the investor. Virtually every investor already has an image of Bernie Madoff being led away to jail after destroying the wealth of countless people and organizations, so the distrust is already there.

Of course, if you really want your message to have staying power, make sure those vivid images are firmly grounded in truth. Otherwise, they may very well fall victim to better ones.

One Response to “What Sarah Palin’s Facebook page can teach us about writing”

  1. Mickey said

    Great new blog, Randy! You amaze me with all you do. Mark your calendar for Wed., Sept 16 at Prime. We need your good ideas for publicizing the Board event.

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