Myth has it that a TV series made possible the presidency of Barack Obama. And apparently Latino presidential candidate Matthew Santos (played by Jimmy Smits in The West Wing) is inspired by Obama’s story: a largely unknown minority congressman, running on a liberal platform, breaking all expectation to become President. Obama followed his fictional friend two years later—or did it follow him? In stories reality and fiction are hard to separate, so let’s call it the West Wing whirlwind. Because if the story of Matt Santos can affect reality, then so can other West Wing-characters, like Toby Ziegler or Sam Seaborn.
We are two speechwriters, from two countries, with one story.
One of us, Rune Kier, worked with diversity and communications in Danish capital Copenhagen. Through The West Wing he came to see political speechwriting as his means to create social change. The inside-look at government made him believe in cutting the red tape to deliver powerful political ideas with effect beyond the podium. Meanwhile in Holland, another speechwriter in the making was being inspired by The West Wing. The other, Jan Sonneveld, had worked in government communications for years until The West Wing reignited his passion for government as “a Powerful Force for Good.”
The fictional storytelling of The West Wing presented a believable ideal to us, a story where cynicism was beaten by big beliefs. In essence, it did what any good speech should do: it opened new doors to how we see the world and how we act towards it.
The West Wing was not the first to do it. In South Africa one episode of the television series Soul City had a whole village rise up to protest domestic abuse and collectively stand by a battered women. Afterwards something incredible happened: Real villages followed the example of their fictional role models. It broke the silent acceptance of domestic violence by showing that another reaction was possible and desirable. The same happened on issues like prejudice towards AIDS and abuse of alcohol.
Growing piles of research suggest that storytelling works regardless if it reflects reality. It’s how our brains are wired. When we receive pure information our brain activates the limited parts designed for processing numbers and language. Listening to stories however activates the very same neurons as if we were experiencing the story ourselves: in our brain, we instantly become the protagonist. That is why stories have such an enormous impact on our lives, whether we realize it or not. Even fictitious, they are only inches away from lived reality and so they can come to be reflected in reality in a storytelling whirlwind.
The West Wing inched in on us and shaped our reality, guiding us towards political speechwriting. With a reality already affected by a story we took the power of storytelling to heart. Danish and Dutch politics is commonly seen as a dirty, cynical business. Politicians might start their careers with lofty aspirations, but in the fog of daily politicking those dreams easily become invisible to the public eye. In The West Wing, Toby Ziegler and Sam Seaborn fight as speechwriters to preserve government’s big ideals and former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau urges speechwriters to keep their idealism. Working with speeches, our central task is to cut through the noise to communicate visions that connect the speaker with the audience. For us, storytelling is the ideal way to do it.
And then The West Wing whirlwind took another storytelling spin. Inspired by The West Wing and its influence in our own lives, we use storytelling and cultivate our idealism to fight ever-lingering cynicism. For Sonneveld it enabled him as well to help a close friend and local politician to shape his ideas and word for an inspiring TEDtalk.
For Kier, The West Wing inspired him to weave together statistics from WHO and expert climate scenarios and form the storytelling of “Climate Change and the Story of Sarah’”—a story of changing health and an urgent call to the medical profession. The speech was published in Vital Speeches International and nominated for a 2014 Cicero Speechwriting Award.
The West Wing story might not perfectly reflect White House reality, but it affected our reality none the less. And then the whirlwind blew again, when (like West Wing character Sam Seaborn) Jon Favreau in real life left The White House and started writing a TV series about young, idealistic people working on a government campaign. His story will look back to reflect his reality at the Obama campaign, but it will also looking forward to affect and inspire the reality of others, just as The West Wing did to us. Reality makes story makes reality makes story. That is why the storytelling whirlwind can bring real change—and give hope for a better world.