The Power of Stories

Russ Linden scribed an interesting column for Governing on the power of story telling. He articulates how he was ultimately persuaded to contribute to NPR because of a fellow listener’s story, and how it’s relevant for politicians and businesses:

I wasn’t going to contribute to National Public Radio this year. Yes, I love its jazz and classical music, and I appreciate the news stories I can’t get anywhere else, but it was just one check too many. Our daughter will be married soon, we’re committed to several other wonderful causes (all of which are hurting because of the recession), and NPR would have to wait until next year.

Then I heard this story during NPR’s annual fall fund drive. A woman talked about her own decision not to contribute to NPR one year, but every time she heard the appeal for money during the fund drive, she felt guilty. So she’d turn off the radio and play her favorite song, which happens to be "You Ain’t Nothin’ but a Hound Dog," sung by Big Mama Thornton. After a while, she’d turn NPR back on to hear the news or music.

She tried to remember when she first heard that recording of "Hound Dog," and suddenly it occurred to her: on NPR! As you can guess, she took out her checkbook that evening and sent a contribution. And after hearing her story, I did the same thing.

I didn’t write my check this year out of guilt; rather, a story was told by someone like me, and it reminded me how much I value the news and music on NPR. There’s something about a well-told story that grabs us. We can relate to a story. We remember stories far longer than we retain figures and facts (example: I can’t remember the percentage of income my NPR station receives from the feds, state government or corporate underwriters, even though it’s often mentioned during the fund drive, but I will long remember the story about Big Mama Thornton).

Stories are a powerful form of communication. Think about your favorite president. Most Republicans cite Reagan, most Democrats point to JFK or Obama. All three were/are great communicators, and all made excellent use of stories. When Kennedy faced the press a few days after the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, he began by recalling an old saying: "Success has a hundred fathers, and failure is an orphan." He went on to take responsibility for the "orphan" (the military failure), something most presidents have difficulty doing. And his poll numbers went up!

When Ronald Reagan wanted to make a point during a talk to the nation early in his first term about the size of the federal budget, he held the entire budget document in his hands, dropped it on the desk, and talked about his concern over the size of government. It was very effective, a "visual" story if you will.

Stories also connect to people with a wide variety of learning styles. Big-picture thinkers and those who love to get into the weeds can all relate to a story. And, as Annette Simmons points out in her wonderful book The Story Factor, the more detailed the story, the more generalizable. That is, the story’s specifics help us relate it to our own lives. As the woman who felt guilty about not giving to NPR described her favorite song (and then that song was played briefly), it reminded me of some wonderful music I have only heard on NPR.