What Do We Want? Authenticity! When Do We Want It? Whenever It Feels Right To You.

This election season is enthralling, whatever your politics might be.

I remember when we used to complain about how boring the presidential election was. Back when it was Kerry vs Bush or Obama vs Romney or even Clinton vs Bush the general sentiment was that both candidates were much more similar than different and that the election itself was a tightly scripted parade. A prerequisite for rising to political heights was knowing how to stick to your talking points–no surprises, no real emotion, no authenticity.

And anyone who went too far, went off script, or was caught off guard was swiftly punished. Think about Howard Dean’s scream in 2004–a holler that halted a tremendous grass roots campaign. Rick Perry never seemed to recover from being unable to list that third government department he wanted to eliminate in the Republican debates of 2011. Quayle cemented himself as a vice-presidential joke after misspelling “potato” at a spelling bee in 1992. And I can think of a handful of times in recent political history when a political leader gets caught on tape saying something racist, sexist, homophobic or just plain off-color and then is quickly forced to resign.

As much as I don’t want idiots and bigots to stay in office, I would often be saddened that a singular public relations moment could tank and entire career. It seemed unfair and that the punishment didn’t fit the crime. (Now if they had a track record of discrimination mismanagement, that’s another story.) It also sent a strong message to candidates: carefully script out every moment of your public life or you might lose everything you have. That resulted in candidates so uninspiring they were practically robots: Kerry, Romney, Gore, and Dole to mention a few. And then we would complain about our leaders being being stiff, unrelatable, and lacking in humanity. It seemed like we were electing political machines, not people.

On the other hand, I think a lot of those blunders were so powerful because they were actually revealing of the real problems of the candidate. They actually are dumb/xenophobic/elite and their true identity was kept from us in calculated campaign management. A moment of authenticity leaked through despite their best efforts.

What we are seeing in the 2016 election cycle is something wholly different. The polls are telling us that the voters value authenticity almost above all other things. In this way, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are part of the same phenomenon. They are anti-establishment candidates who run on speaking truth to power. The anti-establishment part speaks to the frustration across the political spectrum. Most people feel the system isn’t working, although for different reasons and offering different solutions. Along with this distrust of the government is the distrust of traditional campaigning. Sanders and Trump are both known for their insane hairdos, unapologetic demeanor, off-the-cuff speaking style and commanding presence. They are so cool because they are not cool. And their supporters don’t necessarily agree with all that the candidates say, but they believe the candidates say what they mean. And when they mess up, the voters like the way they handle it. This brutal honesty and independence is utterly appealing to the electorate who has been bored and angry for so long.

Meanwhile the criticism on Hilary Clinton is mostly about her demeanor, not her policies. She’s seen as too ambitious, too tight, too fake–willing to be whatever the people want as long as it will win her the election. Then again, she’s had her eye on the presidency for a long time, with her origins in an earlier era of campaigning.

So why is authenticity so important now? I think it’s a couple of things. 1) With the internet/youtube/social media/reality television/24 hour news cycle, public figures are on all the time. There’s no privacy. Speaking to a handful of people at a diner in New Hampshire could have the same exposure as speaking at an official televised debate. The lines are blurred. And staying on script 24 hours a day is impossible.

Also, because of all this exposure, so many public figures have already had many blunders and recovered from them, often swiftly. So it’s just not as big a deal as it used to be. Everyone’s got some dirt on the internet now–like that picture on Facebook we wish didn’t exist. Or a hundred improv videos on YouTube you made in a hurry for some quick cash ten years ago that now have tens of thousands of views. Anyways…

2) My experience is that the more screen time we all get, the more people are hungry for authentic moments. It’s part of why the demand for my kind of work–applied improv–is being requested at team meetings, conferences, and off sites. People want to experience an authentic connection and are basically starved for it. And that’s why so many speakers, whether they are on stage in front of hundreds, on camera in the studio, or on the phone with a sales lead are looking for ways to ditch the script and connect with their audience from the top.

I don’t know how this election season is going to turn out. But my hope is that authenticity will stay a primary attribute for candidates in elections to come. That our leaders are no longer supposed to be perfect and anything that proves otherwise is a black mark on their reputation. I hope they are supposed to be human and striving to do their best for this country. I think it could open up politics as a career for many it would have turned off in the past and open up the parties to candidates they once felt weren’t viable. After decades of such controlled maneuvering it’s exciting to think of the elections as at least a little bit out of control. That the voters might actually get to determine the outcome on election day. And as an improv teacher, I hope audiences will increasingly value presence, honesty, connection and authenticity. We can all let go of the script a bit and trust our candidates and ourselves to improvise.

Shana Merlin
Founder, Merlin Works

About Shana Merlin

Merlin Works is the brainchild of Shana Merlin: improviser, teacher, and performer. Since 1996, she’s been leading classes that stretch people’s imaginations, push them out of their comfort zones, and make them laugh out loud for hours at a time.

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