Recently, I was reminded once again of the power of a personal story to establish a connection with an audience. The event: a political rally for Governor Quinn. The place: Plumbers Hall on Chicago’s West Side. The audience: hundreds of union workers. The speaker: Vice President Joe Biden.The atmosphere was boisterous, and the people in attendance were ready to be inspired. The theme that ran throughout every speaker’s remarks was one of jobs and economic recovery. One union member noted from the dais that last year, 40 percent of his brothers and sisters had been out of work, forced to scrape by with no indication of when things would turn around.
One of the things that struck me was how the atmosphere was right in the vice president’s wheelhouse. He had long been known as a champion of the working people, a factor that was noted by commentators after President Obama added him to the ticket. Unlike a lot of politicians who have been in Washington for so long that they had forgotten the issues that real people outside the Beltway care about, Biden hadn’t lost his ability to relate to “regular people.” He didn’t look uncomfortable in bowling alleys, and when he took off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves, it always seemed less affected.
Biden began his speech by exhorting the audience to remember what’s at stake in the upcoming election, and people responded by yelling their approval. But then something interesting happened. About ten minutes into his remarks (which were unscripted), Biden lowered his voice a bit and asked the union members a question: “What’s the toughest distance a man or woman will have to walk in their lifetimes?” His answer: “Up a flight of stairs to their son or daughter’s bedroom to tell them, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t stay in this house anymore. I lost my job.’” He continued speaking, his voice dropping in volume, as he recounted his father having to make that walk and deliver that news to him when he was just 11 years old.
At that point, I looked around and was amazed to see hundreds of people who had been screaming at the top of their lungs moments earlier listening in rapt attention. Biden was talking about something that so many of them—or their colleagues—had experienced and in such a personal way that you could have heard a pin drop in the room.
After the story he returned to talking about jobs and the economy in more general terms, but it was amazing to see that connection. It didn’t feel contrived; rather, it was the perfect confluence of message, messenger, audience, and delivery.