Stories on the Stump – Part I

You may have noticed that it’s an election year…

And, we couldn’t help but notice the use of stories during this election cycle. For instance, San Diego mayoral candidate Nathan Fletcher tells the story of how surviving an ambush as a Marine in Iraq helped shape his views on the importance of giving back to society. Here’s a link to the full story.

Another mayoral candidate, current San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, tells the story of her humble beginnings on her campaign website. Her first job was as a junior clerk/typist for the county. She went to law school at night. She now has a plaque in her office that reads, “The clerk helping in your division today may be your boss tomorrow.”

As our interviewees this month have described, stories are a great way to connect to people and to get a message across in an easily understood manner.

In the political world, stories can help you get votes or garner support for your initiatives when you’re running for office and can help you explain new policies and the progress being made on an issue when you’re in office.

Stories have other political powers, too. They can help keep an anxious nation calm and focused even in the most trying of times. Think of Winston Churchill during World War II. Standing before the House of Commons in 1940, he described how Britain would never surrender:

“We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing-grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!”

Winston Churchill
(Credit: AP)

As we learned earlier from our storytelling research and collaborators, this speech has the makings of a classic story structure. There is a hero (the citizens of Great Britain), an adversary (the Nazis) and a resolution (despite the challenges, surrender is not an option).

Our own country’s Abraham Lincoln was also a master storyteller, using stories and humor to calm our citizens during the darkest days of the Civil War. Luis P. Masur, the director of American Studies at Trinity College, wrote a piece on Lincoln’s ability for the New York Times:  “If his physical appearance was gawky, even off-putting, his joke-telling drew people to him and made him likable. Lincoln shrewdly used stories and parables in more complex ways as well. They would disarm opponents, or offer an easily digestible truism that seemed to support whatever position he might be taking.”

One of the five known manuscript copies of the Gettysburg Address
(Credit: Library of Congress)

Lincoln’s words to this day resonate. The Gettysburg Address is considered one of our nation’s greatest speeches, and it too tells a story: The heroes? The men who died on the battlefield. The adversary? The war that divided the nation. The resolution: Their sacrifice will not be in vain, that the “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Stephen Denning, an expert in communication and leadership innovation, offers that storytelling as a leadership tool is more important than ever given the vast challenges – from global warming to the globalization of the economy – we now face. “Storytelling is one of the few rhetorical tools able to generate the passion needed to win active support for the actions needed to deal with such deep, pervasive, rapid change,” he wrote in a encyclopedia chapter on leadership storytelling. Click on this link to see it.

But this is not simple, he warns. If you tell a poor story, you can lose, not gain, support. If it’s not true or if it stretches the truth, the story can cause backlash. He also warns of telling stories that are so elaborate that they immediately raise suspicion. Even people at the top of their political game make mistakes with stories.

One cautionary example Denning gives concerns Al Gore, a presidential candidate in 2000. At a debate, he closed with a story about a 79-year-old woman named Winifred Skinner who claimed to go out every day to collect cans to raise money to pay for her prescriptions medicines. He claimed she traveled all the way from Iowa in a Winnebago with her poodle to attend. Well, the story when investigated turned out to be mostly untrue, harming Gore’s campaign.

Such gaffes in today’s presidential campaign continue. Presidential Republican candidate Mitt Romney recently used the story and backdrop of a shuttered drywall company in Ohio as a staging area for a speech attacking current economic policies. But when investigated, it turned out the plant had closed under a previous administration. This caused a firestorm of fact checking. In response, the Romney campaign was left to explain that their emphasis was on why the factory had not reopened rather than why it had closed. This again shows a wrong story is worse for a campaign than no story.

So the use of story in the political arena has tremendous power. It can help people understand complex issues when done right and it can hurt credibility when done wrong.

Tomorrow, we will offer more insight on political storytelling as we turn to Caren S. Neile, who directs the South Florida Storytelling Project at Florida Atlantic University and who has studied this form of storytelling extensively.

Then, we will end the week by exploring the dark side of stories and whether stories can be so alluring that we may be enticed to follow the messages they bring even if they are not in our best interest. We will have links to experts such as Tyler Cowen, an economist, who argues we should be less reliant on stories than we are.

So, continue telling and enjoying stories while this week we identify how to tell a good story from a bad one.

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Mike Stetz, Senior Writer
Collaborative Services

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