Hamburg Barack Obama knows how to cast a spell over people. He owes his unprecedented political rise above all to this talent: within just five years he made it from a provincial representative in the US state of Illinois to the US Senate and from there as President into the White House. In 2008, in the Democratic Party’s primary campaign, he beat Hillary Clinton, who was much more experienced, out of the field. Unlike the cool and rational Clinton, Obama was able to address people emotionally and get them carried away.
The first volume of Barack Obama’s memoirs will be published today, Tuesday. Under the title “A Promised Land” he describes his youth in Hawaii, his rise in politics and his first term as president. It is a superlative book that is being published by the Bertelsmann subsidiary Random House: over 1000 pages thick, accompanied by worldwide preprints and the strictest confidentiality clauses for the copies that were sent to journalists in advance.
The book is set to be a global bestseller and the chances are good that it will live up to this claim. Not because of any sensational content. But because Obama is just as gifted as a writer as he is as a rhetorician. As in his speeches, he uses certain dramaturgical and stylistic tricks that pull the reader under their spell and at the same time arouse sympathy for the protagonist – in this case Obama himself.
Above all, there are five rules that Obama uses in the book and that together make up the recipe for the perfect bestseller. Knowing these rules is not only useful for potential book authors. They help everyone who wants to tell a gripping story: be it in a non-fiction book, a novel, a wedding or birthday address, an application interview or a project presentation.
Every great story is about difficulties that are overcome. Ideally, this succeeds in the so-called “hero’s journey”, in which a protagonist has to cope with various tasks at which he almost fails – before he finally reaches his goal. From the “Odyssey” to the “Hunger Games”, almost all successful stories are based on such a hero’s journey.
In autobiographies, however, many politicians shy away from naming the moments when they threatened to fail in their task. Instead, they let their lives ripple by as a well-tempered sequence of successes. Nothing is more boring for the reader.
Obama knows that and is doing better. Although his life has been quite successful now, he highlights several personal crises. Such as his disorientation as a student in New York in the 80s. Or, particularly urgently, his trip to the Democratic nomination convention in 2000: Obama had failed in his application for a seat in the House of Representatives and is seriously considering getting out of politics. He’s so broke that the rental car desk at the airport declines his credit card. In the end, you won’t even let him into the convention hall.
Just eight years later, Obama himself was nominated as the Democratic candidate for president at the same party congress – and was the first black man to enter the White House. More hero’s journey is not possible.
2. Derive what you stand for from where you come from
Obama describes his youth as a phase of disorientation. As the son of a black father, whom he hardly knows, and a highly educated but almost penniless mother, the young Obama doesn’t really feel part of any social class or clique. He is a mediocre student, tries drugs and tries in vain to impress women. Most teenagers feel lost, and many remember that feeling very well as adults.
By describing his problems as a teenager, Obama makes it easy for readers to identify with him. At the same time, he cleverly links his origins with his mission as president: precisely because Obama does not clearly belong to any ethnic group or milieu, he feels called to be president of all Americans. He is so successful in the election campaign because he can do well with any type of voter.
A classic motif of many great epics is reflected here: a supposed weakness of the youthful hero turns out to be his true strength and defines his destiny. Obama draws an arc from the starting point of his hero’s journey to their destination: the White House. This gives his memoir an inner logic that is satisfactory for the reader. That he, as president, unfortunately fails to reconcile the Americans with one another, that as the black president he remained a provocation for many right-wing US citizens: that is another matter.
3. Make yourself more normal than you really are
Not only in describing his teenage years, but throughout the book, Obama makes it easy for his readers to identify with him again and again: He gets into a row with his wife Michelle because of his chronic disorder. As president, he tries in vain to quit smoking.
In one passage, Obama is annoyed by the poor WiFi in Air Force One. Another portrays his boredom during sprawling summit meetings. All the reader has to do is replace “Summit” with “Department Heads” and “Air Force One” with “ICE” – he feels very close to Obama.
In this way, everyday presidential life seems more normal than it probably really is. The reader can cheer all the more for those moments that grow far beyond the everyday life of the average citizen. For example in the financial crisis when Obama tried to put together a rescue package for the US economy under time pressure.
This is also a motive for many successful stories: the hero as a completely normal person who outgrows himself in a crisis. The little clerk Clark Kent becomes “Superman”. From the even smaller hobbit Frodo in “Lord of the Rings” the savior of Middle-earth.
4. Switch between proximity and distance
Obama plays with contrasts not only in terms of content, but also stylistically. So he describes large passages of his life only in rough outlines, in order to then let individual key scenes emerge in greater detail. This variety makes stories exciting. Obama, for example, ticks off his legendary campaign appearance in front of the Berlin Victory Column in a single sentence – as a German reader you are almost a bit disappointed.
Instead, a few pages later he describes the day of the 2008 presidential election down to the smallest detail: the strange calm that comes after the last campaign appearance. The ghostly emptiness of the streets of Chicago as you travel in a convoy secured by the Secret Service.
5. Be humorous, then you can also be pathetic
Stories with jokes being cracked on every page seem silly. If, on the other hand, it is always about saving the world, a story quickly sounds pathetic and hollow. The autobiography of a president in particular cannot do without serious passages. Of course, you want to know how Obama, as President, felt the many crises during his term in office, how his worldview has changed.
Here, too, the art lies in the alternation between seriousness and humor. “Comic Relief” is what authors call it when a serious scene is contrasted with a joke. Obama draws this “comic relaxation” exemplary through his entire memoir. For a long time, his visit to the G20 summit in London was about the statesmen present, their stance on the USA and Obama’s assessment of them (he particularly noticed the bright blue eyes of Angela Merkel).
Michelle Obama, meanwhile, has other worries. After her reception at Buckingham Palace, she was criticized in the British press for her apparently too casual clothes (cardigan over her dress). Barack Obama asks his wife: Why didn’t Michelle listen to him and wear a little hat and a handbag like the Queen did? Michelle gives her husband a kiss on the cheek and answers with a smile: “And I hope you enjoy sleeping on the couch when you get home.”
And if it is not true, it is well made up. Actually very good.
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