Ducks in a Row: an Awesome Example of Storytelling for Political Campaigns

    Storytelling is one of the most effective — and underutilized — tactics that candidates in local political races can use in their campaigns.

    When I say that you should tell a “story” to the voters, though, I don’t mean that you should make things up. I’m talking about telling your own true, personal story in a few easy-to-digest, memorable themes from your life. Voters don’t want to know about your experience; they want to know about your experiences. Your campaign should tell three or four simple stories that illustrate who you are, and tell those same stories over and over again. You want the voters to associate those life stories with your name as soon as they see it on the ballot.


    I’ve helped political candidates use storytelling successfully in many local campaigns, but my favorite example is from a mayoral candidate who had a penchant for duck decoy carving.

    Mark Costilow was a candidate for an open mayor’s seat in a small city where he and his family had lived for many years. He was the owner of a popular local movie theater, and had been appointed as the city’s safety service director four years earlier. Mark wasn’t just talented and hardworking; he was also a genuinely kind and modest person, which are rare qualities in successful political candidates.

    Unbeknownst to many of the people in his city, Mark was a renowned duck decoy carver and painter who had won more than 100 “best in show” awards. He had written a book about decoy carving, and his work was amazing. Mark didn’t brag much about his accomplishments, but he had worked at his craft for years and was known across the country for his carving and painting skills.

    Carving and painting decoys wasn’t just something that Mark enjoyed and was good at; it was also an undertaking that took immense patience, dedication and attention to detail. It defined who he was as a person, and perfectly illustrated a personality and temperament necessary to be a terrific mayor.

    We decided to dedicate an entire city-wide mailer to showcasing Mark’s accomplishments as a champion decoy carver and explaining how they reflected his belief in hard work and commitment. The mailer featured a big, beautiful, color photo of his award-winning decoys, with a testimonial from a city resident.

    Mark Costilow's duck decoy mailer (the resident name was changed.)

    Mark Costilow’s duck decoy mailer (the testimonial giver’s name is changed for privacy).

    Mark’s duck decoy mailer was very well received; many residents told him how much they enjoyed its message, its simplicity, and the story it told. The photo of the decoys was eye-catching and beautiful, and it did a great job of piquing people’s interest and getting them to hold onto the mailer for a few seconds longer.

    Decoy carving wasn’t the only story point that we touched on in Mark’s campaign; we also focused on his ownership of the local movie theater, his experience as the city’s safety service director, and his dedication to his family. Mark’s campaign did a fantastic job of telling his personal story, explaining why it made him a good choice for mayor, and making residents feel as though they knew him personally (which, by election day, many of them did).

    Although he had never run in a citywide race before, Mark Costilow ended up winning his campaign in a landslide against a well-known opponent. He did so by launching his campaign a year before election day, working hard, and telling his unique personal story to the voters. Mark didn’t let himself get distracted by endless campaign meetings, gossip or negative campaigning. He focused on what matter and ignored the rest.

    As a candidate in a local election, use Mark Costilow’s example as inspiration for telling your own unique story. What are some things that are important to you, and how do they reflect on your ability to be a great elected official? Do you have any hobbies, skills, experiences, or other qualities that the voters might find interesting and unique?

    Boring, uninspired candidates hand out “resume” type literature that drones on about their experience and endorsements. Instead of telling the voters about your experience, tell them about your experiences. Give them a glimpse into your life, what motivates you, and what’s unique about you.

    Tell the voters your personal story — repeat it over and over again in your campaign literature — and they’ll remember you on election day.