Stories on the Stump, Part II

Today, we continue our look into politics and storytelling with insight from Caren S. Neile, who is the founder and director of the South Florida Storytelling Project at Florida Atlantic University. Over the years, she has studied and written about this form of storytelling.

In an article she wrote for Toastmasters International, she pulls examples from both the past and recent history to illustrate how politicians use storytelling techniques. For instance, she notes how Hillary Clinton, when running for president in 2007, used the following story to show that she understood the importance of student loans because she herself relied on them.

Back when I went to college, my late father said to me that he’d saved enough money – he was a small-business man – to pay for room, board and tuition, but if I wanted to buy a book or anything else, I had to earn the money. That was our deal. That was fine with me. Then I graduated from college, and I decided I wanted to go to law school. So I told my father, and he said, “That’s not part of the deal.” 

So I had to get a little scholarship, and I had to keep working. But then I borrowed money. And I borrowed money from the federal government. I borrowed it, as I recall, at something like two percent interest. It did not bankrupt me. It did not cause me to have to take a job on Wall Street. Instead, I got to do what I wanted to do.

Clinton’s use of story, no doubt, resonated with many people, both in college and graduates, who needed student loans to afford their educations. The story also illustrates that the current Secretary of State wasn’t born with a silver spoon in her mouth, that she worked hard to reach her goals.

A young Hillary Clinton during her days at Wellesley
(Credit: Corbis)

Just how far back does this practice go? Well, according to Dr. Neile, pretty far back. She writes, “The classical rhetoricians of ancient Greece used both the introduction narrative and the parable to pump up their speeches in the first democracy.”

You can read the full article here.

Ms. Neile is an expert storyteller herself. In addition her to academic work, she also is producer and co-host of The Public Storyteller, which airs on Miami public radio WLRN. She’s also the former chair of the National Storytelling Network and a founding editor of the international academic journal Storytelling, Self, Society.

We welcome her thoughts.

– – –

Generally, what makes storytelling effective in the political arena?
Three main characteristics make storytelling so effective for politicians. (1) It kindles our emotions, which brain science tells us helps us remember better, (2) it establishes a bond because it helps us identify with the politician by allowing us to walk in his/her shoes (if it’s a personal story) or by walking alongside him or her (if it’s not), and (3) it makes us feel that there is order and stability associated with this person, in part because stories contain not only conflict, but also resolution.

Politicians always seem to want to come across as the common man or woman. They always wear jeans at town hall meetings. Does storytelling help with this goal of relating?
Absolutely. We storytellers talk about the “co-creation” of a story. That is to say, the storyteller depends on the audience’s reactions, or at least imaginations, to complete it. In an important subconscious sense, that puts us on the same plain with the politician who tells us the story. In addition, storytelling is something you do with your friend or neighbor. It doesn’t come across as a lecture, even though it may serve the same purpose.

Do you think all speeches should include a story? Could a speech work without one?
I never say “all” or “never”! But in general, a story—even an introductory, attention-getting narrative or an example in the course of the speech—helps build bridges and move mountains, for the reasons stated above.

Are there certain common themes that politicians seek to get across through stories?
Well, stories most commonly take place in the past tense. So politicians’ stories often center around (1) where they’ve been and what they’ve experienced, (2) where their constituents have been and what they’ve experienced. Depending on the desired effect, the content could contain adversity or glory. A future-oriented story, on the other hand, might be a visualization, or vision, of what was to come with, or without, the politician at the helm.

In your writings, you pointed out stories can be used for bad intentions. You made reference to the Third Reich reworking fairy tales to incorporate anti-Semitic sentiments. How can we, as the audience, learn to beware of such manipulations?
Six words: critical thinking, critical thinking, critical thinking! We need to ask ourselves: Why is this person telling this story? Have I experienced contradictory stories or heard them from people I know or trust? Does the story make sense, given what I know to be true about the world?

Nazi fairy tale example: man in a SS style uniform as the savior of Little Red Riding Hood

What is one of your favorite speeches of all time?
You are probably expecting me to respond with a speech by a seasoned politician, but in fact, one of the best speeches I ever heard was the winning speech at the 2000 World Championship of Public Speaking, delivered by Ed Tate in Miami, Florida. It was called “One of Those Days.” 

What story did it tell? Why do you think that story worked at the particular place and time that speech was given?
The entire speech was a story. Ed told about an experience at an airport, where he behaved politely toward a beleaguered United Airlines customer service rep and encouraged a bully to do the same. Tate’s speaking order was midway through the contestants, and frankly, the audience was tired. But his speech perked us all up with its humor, its opportunities for audience participation (we all joined in on the oft-repeated refrain) and, most importantly, the story it told, which engaged and interested us.

– – –

With the election nearing, we’ll be hearing many more stories to try to convince us to vote for a certain candidate. Indeed, storytelling is a much of the political arsenal as the financial war chest and army of volunteers.

But listen carefully. We’re not buying laundry detergent. We’re choosing our leaders, both locally and nationally, at a time when the stakes rarely have been as high. We’ll end the week with some words of wisdom about critical thinking to help us differentiate good stories from bad.

Mike Stetz, Senior Writer
Collaborative Services, Inc.

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