Don’t trip over your tropes when presenting. Use them instead
by Peter Watts
Tropes are powerful magic. Think of them as cultural storylines with entire value sets and back-stories ready-made for easy access. Taking advantage of a trope allows us to cast ourselves heroic, or patriotic, or wise, or kind, or any other persona we choose.
When we work within a trope, our words and actions are re-interpreted through the lens of the trope. When deployed well, they attach glory. When tripped over, a trope can turn the noblest intentions on their heads.
Tropes can be long established. For example, Robin Hood has become a trope. Invoke Robin Hood and your audience interpret your message through the age-old context of the noble renegade, who takes from the rich to give to the poor.
At the same time a smaller portion of your audience might start to think of men in tights! For this we can thank Mel Brookes. A trope hijacked with sufficient force will morph into something new. In the case of the Robin Hood trope it has started to symbolize vaguely cross-dressed humor.
Tropes can be tricky affairs. I’m fascinated by their diversity and potential. As a child growing up in the UK, I used to watch a lunchtime children’s program called Mr Ben. In it, the hero, a respectable British gentleman, in plain dark suit and bowler hat (spot the trope!), would visit a magical costume store. He would change into a costume, and the whole world would change around him to match the costume, complete with ensuing adventure. Tropes provide the Mr Ben costume changes of the presenter’s world.
Take a look at some of the wonderfully diverse cast of trope characters available. Feel like slipping into one of them?
Good speech-writers, speakers, and image makers will all be aware of the terrific power of tropes. They script from within narratives that work for their candidates, while attempting to trip opposing candidates into tropes that are damaging.
Sometimes, the speechwriter doesn’t need to do anything at all, because sometimes the inept opponent can be relied on to do all the hard work for them.
That’s what is happening to Mitt Romney through his self-inflicted tax disclosure wounds, or rather, lack of disclosure. Romney has placed himself firmly into the grip of a trope trap of his own making.
Allow me to explain:
By way of background to the trap, Mitt Romney has spent the last few weeks fighting off requests that he release income tax records, a fairly standard part of an election process, and one in which all potential Presidents participate, most of them willingly and generously. Romney’s refusal to divulge anything except the barest minimum of information is now feeding speculation about what he’s trying to hide.
This is an election season, and it’s a part of the political cycle when political tropes surge to the foreground. Few of them are good. Check out, for example, this trope definition of the sleazy politician.
For any politician with even the tiniest hint of tarnish attached to them, a large section of the viewing audience start to suspiciously view that politician’s every move through that tarnished trope.
In the case of Romney’s self-inflicted tax issues, they can now add “evasiveness” to the trope….
And they can follow it up with “money”……
And finally, for good measure, it’s “tax money”!
Suddenly that tarnished trope takes a turn for the tricky. It wraps itself around it’s victim. It squeezes, and the harder the victim struggles, the tighter that squeeze becomes.
That squeeze showed itself this week during Romney’s speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, a key electoral group.
Here is the line from the speech that came to dominate media attention. It’s a section where Romney demands the White House investigate accusations of classified information being leaked. He is picking up on a theme introduced by Senator John McCain several weeks ago.
“…….it is unacceptable to say, ‘We’ll report our findings after Election Day.’ These are things that Americans are entitled to know – and they are entitled to know right now. The President owes all Americans a full and prompt accounting of the facts.”
Romney wanted to sow seeds of doubt about White House leaks, but instead, with the trope trap in place, the line rebounds back on him like a evil spell cast into a mirror.
“tax records…. Americans are entitled to know….. full and prompt accounting of the facts please…after the election it’s too late……tax records…..Now!”
Tropes are wonderful, playful, and powerful elements of storytelling and whether we are delivering a speech or building an image, storytelling is the all important art form.
Here’s the thing though. Tropes work best when used to build and guild from a well defined foundation. When applied to obfuscation and evasiveness however, they morph, and once in process, that morphing becomes unpredictable.
Romney is still to find his dominant narrative. Further trope traps await.