The State of: All Politics is Personal

News / The State April 28, 2021

Through a series of articles we call The State, the American Farm Bureau Federation’s Advocacy and Political Affairs team is providing analysis related to "the state of" advocacy and political trends impacting farmers, ranchers and other rural Americans.

“All politics is local” is the famous statement of former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill.  The principle is that a politician’s success is directly tied to their ability to understand and influence the issues of their constituents and to appeal to the everyday concerns of the voters who put them in office. In my opinion, that phrase has evolved to “All politics is personal.”

Never before have we, as Americans, had the tools to express ourselves, contact family and friends, and share our thoughts, opinions and requests with our members of Congress and other elected officials.   From a variety of social media apps, emails and phone calls to town hall meetings,  and visiting with members of Congress in their offices or on your farms and ranches, we have an unprecedented opportunity to tell our stories.

When I first started in coordinating advocacy campaigns with the American Farm Bureau Federation, one of the key metrics was the number of postcards, letters or calls to a particular congressional office.  Advocacy groups focused on how to demonstrate “local” constituent influence, congressional district by congressional district.  Unfortunately, it was impersonal, bland and dull.  What mattered was the number delivered or sent, but not whether the recipient was influenced. 

Over the past decade, the straightforward quantitative collection of numbers has shifted to the unique qualitative art of storytelling.  Why are stories so impactful and influential as an advocacy tool?  Storytelling is the process of combining facts and narrative to communicate a message and an emotion to a target audience.  This is where the personal has become more influential. 

A first-person story helps your audience (in our case members of Congress and their staff) understand how an issue affects real people (their constituents) and allows you to relate the impact of legislation to your farms and ranches.

When that story includes a picture or video and is told in the advocate’s own voice, the capacity to influence increases.  Why?  Science suggests that a visual combined with a first-person account creates empathy which leads to persuasion and thereby influence.

There are three key impacts of stories or narratives:

  1. Stories are Memorable.  When facts and information are framed by a compelling story, you’ll not only hold the attention of your audience, but you’ll also make the information more memorable.
  2. Stories Travel Further.  Because stories are so memorable, they're easy for listeners to recount in the future. So, if you arm your audience with a good story, they'll be able to communicate the details of your issues more clearly.
  3. Stories Inspire Action.  Focusing on specifics or detailed descriptions of what you do will be lost on most of your audiences, while a compelling and inspiring story about what you do, why you do it, and how it will make something better will help attract and motivate people.

When I look at the approach to advocacy that is having the greatest impact on the key issues facing farmers and ranchers, it is the personal stories, either told or shown, that lawmakers and their staff are paying the most attention to.  Influence has shifted from local-only impact figures to the personal impacts an issue has.  When an advocate, or many advocates, expresses their concerns through a visual, personal story, then all politics is indeed personal.

Cody Lyon is AFBF’s managing director of advocacy and political affairs.

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