Ever question whether stories have power to persuade

Ever question whether stories have power to persuade?  Look no further than the current resident of the Oval Office.  Sure, President Barack Obama has charisma to spare.  True, he trumpeted a message of change and hope at a time when people were hungry for it.  And granted, he’s a potent symbol of the American dream.

But above all else, he’s a consummate storyteller.  And this skill has been a centerpiece of his efforts to persuade Americans.

Check out the 2004 Democratic Convention speech that introduced Obama to the country.  The freshman senator told his own tale (“the son of a Kansas farm girl and a foreign student from Kenya”) and his family’s tale, in a way that made it an American tale. 

“I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story,” Obama said explicitly.  “In no other country on earth is my story even possible.”  In saying this, he reminded us of one of the cherished tales we tell about our country: that America is the land of freedom and opportunity.

Last November 4, Obama’s victory speech employed a powerful story to illustrate a key message: that America can change for the better.  He told of one Atlanta woman who cast her vote that day — 106-year-old Ann Nixon Cooper, “born just one generation after slavery when there were no cars on the roads or planes in the sky.” He spoke of all the societal changes Cooper had seen in her life and made it a story of hope, a story of America weathering storms and growing – weaving his “Yes, We Can” message into the tale.

This is a textbook example of using a story to build a metaphor and make a larger point.  Stories pack emotional resonance, and emotions, after all, are what move us to action.

Did Obama’s storytelling work?  It turned a skinny, big-eared freshman senator into a president in just four years.

Obama’s storytelling skill hasn’t escaped the attention of the media.  A March 8 article in the Los Angeles Times noted that, “Storytelling is at the core of Obama’s public speaking, over-riding the modern obsession with the sound bite.”

The President’s chief speechwriter, Jon Favreau, shares Obama’s passion for story.  According to the Times article, he explains his job to friends like this: “Tell a story.  That’s the most important part of every speech, more than any given line: Does it tell a story from beginning to end?”

Obama and Favreau turned to story power in the president’s first address to the joint session of Congress.  They told the tale of how the country had fallen into economic crisis and how the administration intended to pull it out.

Did their story work?  The plan’s effectiveness remains to be seen.  But despite all the doom and gloom in the news, Obama’s rating rose in opinion polls and he bolstered support for his program.

Got a hard sell ahead of you?  Take a tip from politics.  Frame your argument in the form of a compelling story, packed with emotion.  Extract from it a metaphor that calls your listener to action.  And watch how the world listens.

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