Category: Narrative

Hamilton and the Power of Narrative

By Mike Kuczkowski


In 2003, I wrote a 367-word biography of Alexander Hamilton for Columbia University as part of the Columbia 250 celebration.

I remember struggling with it and the 30 or so other biographies we had committed to write for the launch of the Columbia 250 web site (an innovative idea back then). How to tell the story in what was supposed to be 250 words of such an accomplished, intelligent, intriguing and comparatively underappreciated figure? So many facts, so little space. Hamilton wasn’t quite Washington, Jefferson, Franklin or Adams, but he was fascinating. I mean, the guy was an orphan from the Caribbean who basically invented the American banking system as we know it. How do you do that story justice?

Thankfully Lin-Manuel Miranda, with help from Ron Chernow, has answered that question. Apparently, it involves 20,520 words, a hip-hop score, a Broadway stage and period dress.

I am, at the moment, obsessed with Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical. Miranda started working on the musical in 2009 after picking up Chernow’s award-winning 2005 biography of Hamilton on a vacation (Chernow serves as an historical advisor to the show) and recognizing Hamilton’s potential as not just an interesting biographical story but as a human story (an American story) that would resonate broadly.

Hamilton has been lauded for many things: bringing modern beats to the stage in the telling of an historical tale; redefining the pace of the modern musical; using contemporary language to express 18th century ideas; and fielding a cast of diverse actors as our founding fathers telling the story of our nation’s birth. All of which are remarkable. I find its storytelling to be its most outstanding feature. Here’s why:

  • In “Alexander Hamilton,” we meet a young Hamilton as a “bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman” who grows up to join the American Revolution and makes a name for himself as Washington’s right-hand man. Boom, right off the bat, something we are not expecting.
  • He introduces us to Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s contemporary, rival and ultimately his killer, as an entirely sympathetic figure. Even if we know Burr from the history books, Miranda endows him with an intriguing point of view and bearing. “Talk less. Smile more,” he advises Hamilton early on. “Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.”
  • We hear, in “My Shot,” how Hamilton is “young, scrappy and hungry”’ just like his country.

In a recent interview, Miranda described the purposefulness with which he wrote the lyrics for the musical’s first few songs:

“For me, the fun of writing My Shot is, it’s Hamilton’s declaration of purpose and I wanted to demonstrate his intellect and his ambition not just in what he was saying but in the way he was saying it. So, prior to his arrival and singing “my shot,” the other guys in that bar, right – (John ) Laurens, (Hercules) Mulligan and (Marquis de) Lafayette, are rhyming at the end of the line. It’s:

– I’m John Laurens in the place to be! Two pints o’ Sam Adams, but I’m workin’ on three!

We rhyme at the end of the line. And then here comes Hamilton, and suddenly we’re getting a lot of internal assonance and a lot of internal rhyming. And not content to just rhyme at the end of the line, but you know, have these big pun-esque lyrics, you know.

– I know the action in the streets is exciting, but Jesus between all the bleedin’ ‘n’ fightin’ I’ve been readin’ ‘n’ writin’

They’re intricately tied together and if you consider that Hamilton is delivering this in real time, suddenly you’re like, whoa, this is the greatest freestyler who ever lived. And so, that was the fun in constructing that. And it was many days and months of work to sort of make his lyrics just that much more intricate than everybody else’s.”

I’m blown away by the care Miranda took with these choices. That’s art. That’s craftsmanship. (It’s worth noting how long that takes. Many days and months.)

The narrative unfolds with beauty, grit and elegance to match its complexity. Miranda introduces us to “The Schuyler Sisters,” who include Angelica Schuyler, the eldest sister to whom Hamilton introduces himself, her younger sister Eliza, whom Hamilton will later marry, and Peggy. None of it is simple.

  • In “Satisfied,” Angelica’s wedding toast to Hamilton and Eliza, we learn how deeply Angelica is drawn to Hamilton. She recounts their meeting, and how she sized him up “too quickly” (but not wrongly) as a penniless suitor and matched him with her sister, to Angelica’s lasting regret
  • In “Wait For It,” we hear Burr lay out his philosophy of life and power: If there are reasons why he is still alive, he’s willing to wait for it. He lays bare his secret. He’s not standing still, he’s lying in wait.
  • In “That Would Be Enough,” which I find to be the musical’s most moving song, Eliza pleads with Hamilton to moderate his ambitions. Hamilton: “Will you relish being a poor man’s wife, unable to provide for your life?” Eliza: “I relish being your wife. Look around, look around… Just stay alive, that would be enough.”

Hamilton describes the rise of Marquis de Lafayette as Washington’s lead commander, the Colonists’ victory at the Battle of Yorktown and the challenge of independent self-rule. We see it all through the eyes of Hamilton, a singular figure in the early days of our nation. Miranda makes complex events, like the Constitutional Conventions, the writing of the Federalist Papers, Washington’s early cabinet meetings, and the compromise over Hamilton’s economic plan, accessible.

Along the way, Miranda captures both Hamilton’s strengths (his brilliance and boldness) and weaknesses (ambition and his inability to shut up) in equal measure, humanizing a hard-to-humanize figure.

Miranda is a huge talent with the rare ability to pull it off. He has a MacArthur genius grant to his name, two Tony-award winning plays and a Pulitzer Prize. No slouch.

That said, those of us who manage the narratives of the companies we represent, either in-house or as consultants, should take some lessons from Hamilton, which takes a complex figure and finds a way to turn it into something relatable. That’s a challenge many of us confront with regularity.

Here are some lessons Hamilton holds for communicators:

  1. Start with origins: Miranda’s opening number “Alexander Hamilton” (which he previewed in 2009 at a White House Evening of Poetry, Music and the Spoken Word) summarizes the most compelling aspects of Hamilton’s biography and foreshadows his ambition and resourcefulness. (Note: I’m fascinated to hear the White House crowd’s laughter in their initial hearing of this song. They had no idea what was coming.)
  2. Declare your purpose: The third number of the show is “My Shot,” which is a big highlight of the show, what Miranda describes as Hamilton’s “Disney Princess” number, Hamilton’s declaration of purpose. We learn what he believes the stakes are for him in the Revolution, and life. The song conveys Hamilton’s self-confidence, self-doubt, ambition and recklessness. And, by using an expression that ultimately foreshadows Hamilton’s fatal duel with Burr, Miranda foreshadows a concept with dual meaning that will come back into the narrative in multiple ways over time.
  3. Find the emotional core: Some of the strongest songs in the musical are songs that pause along the path of the narrative to take stock of the emotional aspects of Hamilton’s story. “That Would Be Enough” makes me well up every time, as it highlights the tension between the boundlessness of Hamilton’s ambition and the beautiful life that is being built around him by Eliza.
  4. Embrace complexity: Hamilton is unflinching in its efforts to round out its subject, bad choices, broken promises and ill-chosen battles. He pursues martyrdom, embraces fatherhood, shames his wife with his philandering and ultimately loses his life in an avoidable confrontation. Hero? Hard to say.
  5. Use repetition wisely: There are a number of phrases and expressions throughout Hamilton (“I’m not throwing away my shot”, “The world turns upside down”, “Right-hand man”, “I will never be satisfied”, “History has its eyes on you”, “The room where it happens”) that repeat and recur throughout the musical, often with evolving meanings. This allows a listener to anchor into key elements of the story while hitting them with new developments and concepts. It breeds familiarity while the narrative moves forward.
  6. Dimensionalize tension and conflict: There are multiple conflict vectors throughout Hamilton. The conflict between Hamilton’s intelligence and his social status; Angelica’s desires and her obligations; Burr’s trust-fund-baby status and his desire to be on the winning side; the colonists’ desire for independence and King George III’s sense of divine authority (‘You’re on the own’ he declares, dripping with sarcasm. ‘Awesome. Wow. Do you have a clue what happens now?’). So often corporate narratives try to offend no one, or present propositions as being without risk. That’s fine, but I’m not sure why anyone would read them.
  7. Break forms: There’s no template for a 2 hour and 45 minute hip-hop musical. The founding fathers did not speak in rhymes. Alexander Hamilton was not Puerto Rican. But, it works. Who says a master narrative has to be prose on paper? It can be a video, a web site or a speech. A Prezi deck can outline a company’s story as well as any vehicle. As long as it lives in the world, inspires employees, engages stakeholders… it’s doing its job.

Hamilton shows the power of a creative approach to storytelling that can bring dense, difficult-to-absorb subject matter to life. We can definitely do better with our narratives by grappling with the realities and messiness of our characters, finding the tension and emotional core of the story, and bringing it artfully to the page.

If Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose first public performance of “Alexander Hamilton” in front of a political audience was met with anxious laughter, can turn that into a hit play, what have we got to lose?

Trump’s Winning Narrative

To understand Donald Trump’s lead in the polls, look closely at the narrative he’s constructing about himself – and America. Photo by Gage Skidmore. Used under Creative Commons license.
By Mike Kuczkowski

It was January 2004, and I was meeting with my boss when a colleague knocked on the door and popped in. “Hey, did you see ‘The Apprentice’ last night?”

My boss and I looked at each other and smirked. “No.”

The smirk was telling. The program, which was being billed as “The Ultimate Job Interview,” featured real estate magnate Donald Trump and a cast of 16 contestants who vied for a one-year, $250,000 job in Trump’s organization. As a concept, the show sounded like a loser.

And then there was Trump himself. Or, as he was known, The Donald — a larger than life real estate and casino magnate whose claims to fame included a high-profile affair with actress Marla Maples (while he was still married to his first wife, Ivana Trump), a lavish lifestyle followed by bankruptcy and a seemingly bottomless well of egotistical and caustic quotes. Trump was the poster boy for the crashing and burning of the 1980s lifestyle of the rich and famous. He was a joke.

Still, our colleague pressed on. The show was something to see. The tasks were surprising, well designed to reveal the leadership qualities (and shortcomings) of the contestants. The teams — one for the men, one for the women — highlighted some really interesting dynamics. And, most importantly, Trump, who winnowed out the field in the final boardroom scene of the episode with what would eventually become his catch-phrase (“You’re fired!”), was a revelation.

“He was a lot more interesting and insightful than I had expected,” our colleague said. “A lot.”

I tuned in the following week, partly so that if my boss asked about it, I’d be able to say I had. I was stunned. Our colleague was right. Trump was no buffoon. He had hired strong leaders to run his organization. He was very observant. He was unpredictable. He gave insightful feedback. He displayed values around hard work, collaboration and entrepreneurial thinking.

Trump was the real deal.

I watched every episode that season, a rare instance of appointment TV viewing for me. I learned a lot more than I expected, and “The Apprentice” went on to be a huge television hit with 14 seasons to its credit.

So here we are, 11 years later, watching Donald Trump the presidential candidate fare far better than expected.

In watching Trump’s success for the past few weeks, I’ve been amazed, though not necessarily surprised, at how he has dominated the field of Republican candidates. With his willingness to hurl insults, engage in stunts and generally court controversy, he is giving a master class in media manipulation.

One day he gives out Lindsay Graham’s cell phone number at a rally. A few weeks later, he insults Sen. John McCain’s war record. A few weeks after that, he ejects Univision’s Jorge Ramos from a press conference. Trump generates so much media attention for his comments and his actions that there’s little room for the press to cover anyone or anything else. I’m certain that reporters on his beat feel like they must always be attentive for a potentially headline-grabbing quote. He defines “attention-grabbing.”

But, Trump is no mere demagogue, as some observers claim.

If Trump succeeds, and he well may, it will be on the strength of the narrative he is constructing — and the narrative he represents.

Simply put, a narrative is a story. It involves characters and a plot, a conflict and a resolution. Narratives have been with us, in the form of mythical tales and works of art, for centuries. Recent research shows that the human brain is hard-wired to respond to narratives. In the context of strategic communications, a narrative is a sense-making vehicle that explains how the world looks from the organization’s perspective.

In his 2004 book “Changing Minds,” Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner uses the political campaign of Margaret Thatcher to illustrate how a narrative can be a powerful tool to unite a diverse audience, as in an election.

In 1979, when Thatcher ran for Prime Minister, Gardner says she embraced a simple slogan: “Britain has lost its way.” At the time, she was speaking to an electorate that must have felt like the country’s best days were behind it. It had seen Britain win World War II and then dismantle its empire, join up with various European institutions, and allow unions and civil servants to take dominant roles in society.

Thatcher, Gardner says, asserted that if she became Prime Minister, she would change all of that. She would reinvigorate the economy, reassert Britain’s leadership abroad and get the country moving again.

Gardner says there were two keys to Thatcher’s success. First, she wove a story to the nation about the nation’s recent decline that felt real and right, and motivated many people to take action.

Second, her personal story mapped to the story she had created about Britain at that time, and suggested that she was uniquely qualified to lead Britain out of its current state. She had grown up in a middle-class family. She had worked hard in school and had done well, earning a degree in chemistry from Oxford. She had ran for office as a conservative, taking on roles in the Shadow Cabinet and advancing within the party structure through determination and persistence. She had not been born into anything, which meant that as a leader, she could speak to a path forward that would require hard work and smarts.

Whatever one thinks of Thatcher’s ascendance or policies, Gardner’s analysis casts an interesting light on the power of narratives to unite a diverse population.

How does this analysis apply to Trump?

First, let’s look at a potential narrative for the country, from the perspective of middle-class white Republican primary voters who have Trump leading the field in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

America emerged from the Cold War as the lone superpower. Yet, in an era of globalization, we’ve seen good middle-class manufacturing jobs get shipped overseas, and high-paying innovation jobs be given to highly educated immigrants. Our leadership internationally has been diminished by a series of wars that have not ‘won’ us security at home. Constituencies for issues like gay marriage earn victories, while we are told to just accept change. Our economic security is shaky. Our educational system has us lagging the world. Our government keeps expanding, but we’re not sure what it does for us. Our president speaks like a professor, and our government always seems on the edge of shutting down.

I’m not saying these things are right, but I think for many Americans, particularly the socially conservative voters Republicans have been courting for more than 20 years, they resonate.

Then along comes Trump. He demonizes immigrants. He talks about building a wall to keep immigrants out and making someone else pay for it. To the middle class, again, that probably sounds like a pretty good deal. He demonizes the political class. He says that government is too big. He calls it like he sees it.

At a deeper level, though, Trump is constructing a narrative that America has lost its way and that he — the “really rich” businessman (his own words) — has what it takes to chart a better course.

He has, after all, succeeded in rebuilding a commercial empire after falling nearly $1 billion in debt. He has succeeded in real estate, entertainment, personal branding, sports and even beauty pageants. If Trump maintains his current momentum, expect to hear more about his personal story (as with this week’s in-depth Rolling Stone profile) in ways that support his ability to lead America forward.

Trump also has a winning ability to laugh at himself, as with last week’s bit on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. That’s pure genius. Only someone with real, genuine self-confidence can get up there and do a bit like that.

Why shouldn’t Trump have that self-confidence? He’s been a huge success. Just ask him.

And why shouldn’t America have that self-confidence? Make no mistake, that’s a message that has broad appeal to millions of Americans, who would – per Trump’s slogan – like to “Make America Great Again.”

Trump surprised me once, in 2004. That’s not going to happen again.