Do you want to make a difference in the world? Tell a story.
Storytelling is one of the oldest and most effective forms of communication, and we still crave it today. From the earliest days of language, people told stories around campfires. Why? For entertainment, yes, and to be social. But they also told tales to communicate knowledge—to educate, and to persuade. “I want you to understand that you should not go over that mountain ridge. Trust me, bad things will happen.” Such words are not always convincing standing alone. (You know this if you’ve ever tried to instruct a teenager about, well, anything.) But, “Let me tell you a story of the ancient Grandmother from our tribe who ventured over that mountain and met wolves bigger than mastodons; she was never heard from again,” is different. That gets people’s attention. They draw closer and listen. They won’t forget.
If you’re reading this, you’re almost certainly a fiction writer, and you appreciate a good story. You probably can put words and sentences together well. You are a storyteller.
Congratulations. You have the tools to make a difference in the world. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a walk together.
Let’s start in 2016, with the election no one liked. Pretend you don’t know the outcome. Try to think back to late summer, early fall of that year. Can you think of what was missing from the presidential campaigns? (Remember, at this point, you know nothing about Russia.)
There was no Joe the Plumber in that election. There was no couple like Harry and Louise. Remember them? Joe the Plumber originated in the 2008 presidential election—a generic guy who wanted to buy a small plumbing business and who became a short-term conservative hero when he asked then-candidate Obama a question about small business taxes. Harry and Louise were purely fictional characters created in 1993, played by actors, to portray the average fortysomething couple considering various aspects of healthcare reform. They then appeared in television ads on and off through 2009.
Regardless of what you may have thought about these three characters, there’s no denying their effectiveness. The electorate paid attention. Candidates talked about policy and spit out attacks, but these characters offered personal stories to the electorate. They communicated, “Once upon a time I was a person just like you, this is what happened to me, here’s how candidate X would change that, and happily ever after.” (Sometimes it was “unhappily ever after.”) And people responded, “Yeah, I get that. Me, too.” The characters’ stories became short-hand for entire political positions, and for some, the candidates themselves.
Just as there’s a saying that all politics is local, a lesser-known axiom states that all politics is personal. People want to hear stories that reflect their own experiences, their own feelings, their own future possibilities. This shows empathy on the part of the candidate and lends his or her statements and promises credibility. But that element was missing in Election 2016. Hillary Clinton eventually brought out the story of Miss Universe, Alicia Machado, but it was too late by the time she did. And Donald Trump’s “story” of “forgotten people” (eerily reminiscent of the “forgotten men” in Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here) wasn’t a story. It was a caricature. But in the absence of a more complete story, people fit their own details into the shell.
Fast forward to the 2020 campaign. [Read more…]