Storytelling Learned from Ann Romney

By: Guest | September 10, 2012 | 

Today’s guest post is written by Barbara Sawyers

I’m a Canadian and have no vested interest in the Republican National Convention.

But as a speechwriter and storyteller, I watched. And I learned a lot by listening to the personal stories told from the podium.

Storytelling is a smart tactic to win the hearts of audiences, and therefore, their votes.

The strategy during the Convention was to humanize Mitt Romney and to show undecided voters the Romneys are real people, just like them.

At the convention, Ann Romney was under heavy pressure to deliver results. She was to build trust, win votes, and to identify with a more down-to-earth image than the Cadillac Queen.

I first heard Ann speak during the primaries, around the time Newt Gingrich was condemned for allegedly asking his wife for a divorce while she was undergoing cancer treatment. Mitt’s support for his wife during her breast cancer and multiple sclerosis persuaded me that a heart beat exists under that shiny robot exterior. Ann’s story mattered so I was interested to hear what she would say.

In order to cast her glow on Mitt, I’ll bet the strategists and her speechwriter told her to paint a picture with her stories, and add as much physical detail as possible.

This is where the claim that Ann and Mitt ate off an ironing board in their early days comes in.

I’ll bet neither Ann nor the strategists have ironed much. If they did, they’d realize how rickety ironing boards are. A light tap would have sent the ironing board, dishes, and food clattering to the floor.

Besides, a smart couple would have found a more stable table at a thrift shop or Woolworths. Or orange crates. As poor newlyweds, my parents ate off a card table.

Of course, Ann Romney isn’t the first person to exaggerate to attempt to improve a story. How often have you raised your eyebrows when someone was telling a supposedly true tale? Usually we let them get away with it because the story is so entertaining.

But when people who are supposed to always tell the truth start to embellish, we lose trust – the very thing you’re attempting to gain.

Many of the podium stories generated excitement in Tampa and goodwill outside. But once some of these stories are scrutinized, doubts will surface. People caught up in the moment will go back to being undecided voters. A sound strategy poorly executed can backfire on you.

We may put up with Uncle Harry exaggerating about the size of the fish he caught; but not with politicians, business leaders, or anyone else we expect to tell the truth.

Speechwriters and marketing strategists, remember this the next time you’re tempted to spin a story, even a little. Details have the power to bring your story to life–or to kill it.

Barbara Sawyers helps people pull ideas out of their heads and onto the page through her writing, training, and book Write Like You Talk Only Better.

  • OK, I am a huge fan of Spin Sucks and I know that this blog strives to put PR above politics, but this partcular post is barely straddling that line.  
    First off, it saddens me that you felt the need to make your point by coming close to calling Ann Romney a liar, particularly without any real proof.  I don’t want to make this comment about picking apart your many assumptions, but they’re weak. Frankly as a storyteller, I would think that you could have found a more concrete example that wasn’t quite so openly partisan.  
    However, on the point of that you make, I agree that embellishing the facts can reduce trust within an audience and should be avoided.  Even the smallest exaggeration can be enough to lose an audience’s trust.  Particularly if that audience is already dubious.  A great example is “eco-friendly” products that barely do more than their traditional counterparts.  When working with clients that make organic, all-natural, or earth-friendly claims, we always have to make sure that everything can be proven and sourced because the intended audience has become so jaded about these types of claims.  

    • @HeatherTweedy I tend to agree with you. Even if the post is meant to examine a comm event in politics, sadly there are people who see it as an opportunity to let their personal venom flow in the comments.

      Even though the author claims to have no vested interest in the RNC, what about the general election? I know a few Canadians who have taken sides in the US election and have been quite vocal.

      Maybe, in light of how uncivil political discussions can become political communication analysis should be reserved for non election years?

      •  @Suzi_C  Thanks for the support!   I will say this blog actually inspired a future blog post for me and really made me think, so it was successful.  🙂  
        In the end, I like @barbsawyers points about establishing trust in your audience through complete honesty.  I think that her end point was something all PR pros can take to heart.  

  • Heather, I’m not the only one who thought Ann was stretching the truth with the ironing board. I like Ann, but I know what goes on behind the scenes with political speeches. I have no way of disproving the Romney’s claim. If they provide old photos of Ann and Mitt eating from an ironing board, I will make my family dine on one tonight.  

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  • DonnaPapacosta

    Great post from Barb. You’re so right. Storytelling can be very effective, but falls flat when you’re not believable.

  • My uncle was president of Ford Europe. Prior to that he was Director of Marketing, Ford Division USA. He has three daughters and I guarantee each of them ironed quite a bit early in their marriages. 
    Like @HeatherTweedy I agree with your overall point. But in listening to Ann Romney, I never once thought she over-did it. Any more than I faulted Michelle Obama for some of the things she said. 
    From comedian Mark Russell(
    Ann Romney:  Mitt and I were so poor we had to eat a lot of tuna fish.
    Michelle Obama:  Oh yeah?  We were so poor Barack’s shoes didn’t fit.
    Ann:  Oh yeah?  We had to eat off an ironing board.
    Michelle:  Oh yeah?  Barack’s car was so rusted out, you could see the ground through the floor.
    Ann:  Oh yeah?  We once had leaks in all three yachts.
    Michelle:  Oh yeah?  Barack had to pick furniture out of a dumpster.
    Ann:  So did Mitt.  Where do you think he got our convention platform?

  • Stand alone ironing boards are rickety. What about the ones that come down from the wall?

    • @ExtremelyAvg I was thinking the same thing!

      •  @Suzi_C  @ExtremelyAvg When I heard the line, I imagined one coming down from the wall.

  • TheAmericanPuls

    @jocmbarnett @BarbSawyers Are the lack of specifics from Romney/Ryan negatives to you? Vote@ TheTruth Please Retweet

  • TheAmericanPuls

    @barbsawyers Are the lack of specifics from Romney/Ryan negatives to you? Vote@ TheTruth Please Retweet

  • rjfrasca

    This post is disappointingly slanted, bordering propaganda.

  • So, let me get this straight… your lesson from Ann Romney is that she lied? You may have no vested interest in our election but you certainly have a point of view that is slanted against her.Whether her stories are true or not, your post would have been more appropriate to actually have demonstrated lessons from the speech and not a one-sided view of your political beliefs.Oh, my card table is not nearly has stable as my ironing table. I’d much prefer to eat off my ironing board. What a stupid thing to call out as a lie.

  • I did not say Ann Romney lied. I said she may have “exaggerated.” I warned speechwriters and marketing strategists, who may have been behind the ironing board detail, to not “spin a story, even a little.” Google “Ann Romney ironing board” and  you’ll see I’m not the only one who questioned the ironing board table.  I also said I was impressed by an  earlier speech about how Mitt stood by her side through breast cancer and multiple sclerosis. All the parties appear to be stretching the truth. This was one example that had a lesson for PR professionals.  Man, you Americans are touchy. Peace!

  •  @barbsawyers I think that your insinuation of Ann Romney not having ironed much nor that they were a smart couple because if they were they would have known an ironing board would be too unstable is pretty clear.
    My biggest concern about this article that is that you picked a potential treasure trove of opportunity to learn from her speech yet chose to assume she exaggerated. There is no reason to assume she exaggerated other than your assumption that all ironing boards are not stable. What if the apartment had a built in ironing board and they didn’t have to buy it at all but had a couple of stools that they were given.
    What about the other lessons of the speech. Consider:
    1. Presence matters
    2. Sometimes it takes a moment to get your stride.
    3. Stories make a difference
    4. Connect to your audience personally
    5. Be relatable

  • OSoyombo

    @barbsawyers on behalf of her immigrant population– I say “sorry” 🙂
    ( good read !)

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  • Here’s my longer reply: Let’s wave the flag for truth, not politics.

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  • PamelaGrow

    Whoa.  I didn’t take this as a partisan post at all — merely as a reminder that for our storytelling to resonate, it should be authentic and real.  Stories DO make a difference, but, while the effort was there, Ann Romney simply isn’t very relate-able.