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RICK MACLEAN: Master storyteller knows his audience

President Donald Trump speaks during a graduation ceremony at the U.S. Naval Academy on Friday in Annapolis, Md.
President Donald Trump speaks during a graduation ceremony at the U.S. Naval Academy on Friday in Annapolis, Md. - Associated Press

The cane went around the room slowly, casually. You could almost see people thinking out loud: “What’s with the cane?”

Rick MacLean.
Rick MacLean.

As it reached the far corner I walked over to reclaim it, then asked the question I always ask: “What do you remember about the cane?”

“It’s old,” said one.

“The handle is worn. There’s some white tape wrapped about it to hold the padding in place,” said another.

True, I acknowledged. Then I told them its story. The cane was a gift to my son when he broke an ankle during a summer basketball tournament. The friend who gave it to him had been in an auto accident.

“He was the most seriously injured survivor on the team known as The Boys In Red, the Bathurst high school basketball team involved in the deadly car crash.”

I double clicked on a photo of what remained of the van the boys had been in when, returning from a game, it skidded on a slippery road, into the path of an oncoming truck.


“He was so badly hurt his spine was disconnected from his hips.”

More silence.

“He spent months recovering from his injuries. First a hospital bed, then a wheelchair, finally this cane. Today’s he’s fully recovered and works as a police officer.”

I held up the cane.

“You will remember that story this evening.” Heads nodded. “If someone mentions a cane to you years from now, you will remember this moment.”

No one disagreed.

Capturing the attention of an audience is not complicated. But there is a fundamental trick to it: You must know your audience. You must know what they bring to your story. Their beliefs – spoken and unspoken – are a crucial part of the tool kit all experienced storytellers know how to use.

And - it hurts me to say this because the man, his beliefs and his actions are repugnant to me –one of the best storytellers I’ve seen in Donald Trump.

I know, I know. But stick with me for a moment, as the crowd did Thursday when I told them the cane story.

Trump knows his audience. He knows on a gut level what they fear and how they feel. And he plays them like a concert violinist plays his instrument.

Proof? I offered the crowd clips from a New York Times video of Trump rallies from the last presidential election. One featured a man wearing a black T-shirt with the words Frig Islam – OK, I’m translating. State troopers escorted him from the rally, but people came up to him outside to cheer him on.

Another moment featured a man with a USA bandana wrapped around his head shouting at an anti-Trump protester urging people to remember America was founded on freedom of religion.

“You don’t come and talk about America when you’re supporting Muslims,” he shouted.

Another clip I used shows Trump in an interview. “I think Islam hates us,” he says to a CNN reporter.

His audience loves his message. Believes in it, because it confirms their beliefs. That’s powerful storytelling.

The final video clip, from CNN, featured a well-dressed woman, eyes bulging as she explained her support.

“We’ve got people in positions of power who, I know for a fact, are liars,” she stormed. “I don’t believe any one of them. Not one. I believe Donald.”

Rick MacLean is an instructor in the journalism program at Holland College in Charlottetown.

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