Why storytelling works so well: in politics and in our everyday life

Article by Anna Groh | Illustration by Beatrice Bandiera

“Storytelling” – something that belongs to a children’s room, something for parents to tell their kids before they go to bed? Yes, but not only that: it takes place in the adult’s world just as much. Not in order to put us to sleep, of course. When it comes to storytelling in our everyday life, the goal is most likely to influence us in a way that serves a specific purpose or interest.

A good story can involve us in such a strong, deep way that we almost forget what’s happening around us. The higher the involvement of people is, the better you can reach people’s feelings and persuade them. Therefore, embedding an issue into a story is a very effective way to do so.

Doesn’t that sound quite useful for someone holding a political office? Exactly, which is why Storytelling has become a popular tool when it comes to political speeches and campaigns. The following article aims to explore the power of storytelling, why it works so well on us and how it can be applied in political environments.

What exactly is a Story?

Stories “help us turn a complex world, which provides a potentially overwhelming amount of information, into something manageable, by identifying its most relevant elements and guiding action” (Cairney, 2019). In order to make information accessible and understandable for everyone, stories offer a good way of transferring knowledge. This is especially important when it comes to a complex communication environment, for example if many people of different ages, cultures and backgrounds are addressed (Westsidetastmasters).

Since stories aim to transfer messages to the audience, one main characteristic is their “allusiveness”– they call up other stories in our head, referencing to something we already are familiar with. This works so well on us because people naturally expect stories to point towards a “greater moral” (Callahan and Polletta, 2017-pdf here).

Moreover, stories appeal to people’s emotions, which is why they provide very engaging content in order to trigger strong reactions, enhanced through characteristics like metaphors and mythical speech (Verblio, 2016). Interestingly, storytelling can also be seen as a “social activity”: by sharing stories and experiences with each other, people with similar beliefs and values create a sense of community.

The process of identifying with and relating to one another eventually builds up a collective identity. This is also why a speech can help to form some kind of relationship between the storyteller and the audience. (Callahan and Polletta, 2017).

Why does it work?

“Each of us walks around with a bunch of stories in our heads about the way the world works. And whatever we confront, whatever facts are presented to us, whatever data we run into, we filter through these stories” (Andy Goodman, 2018).

If you want to convince someone of an issue that is important to you, presenting bare facts simply won’t be enough, even if those same facts are scientifically proven. There is no simple answer for that as human decision-making is a very complex process based on various psychological processes. But what can be said is that emotions will overweight facts. They will determine whether we let facts in or simply ignore them in the first place, so those facts better be combined with emotions (Weinreich, 2016).

Following Festinger’s Theory of confirmation bias, “people unconsciously seek for information that is conform with their own beliefs” (Heshmat, 2015). Furthermore, those emotions are connected to our personal “narrative” which we have developed over time: our thinking and understanding of, in Goodman’s words, “how the world works”, shaped by multiple (mostly social) experiences. This adds up with the Social-Constructivism Theory which states that people create their own reality through multiple social factors (Teater, 2015). Based on this narrative, people then evaluate information given to them- which either does fit into it, or not.

The implication is clear: believing that it’s sufficient to present people with “the facts” and assume that they will evaluate these purely rational is naive (Davidson, 2017). Therefore, the way in which content is communicated is almost as important as the content itself. If our first instinct is to react emotionally, information embedded in stories have a much deeper effect on us. “The Marketing Society” points out that it’s not about creating a new story, but about finding a story people already believe in and framing your evidence the right way, which requires speakers to know their audience very well.

Why in Politics?

Keeping this in mind, it’s not surprising that politicians make use of stories in almost every good campaign or speech. “In a democracy, it is not enough for something simply to be the best option. People must reach agreement that it is the best option”, Davis argues in accordance to what we read earlier (Davidson, 2017). Since the context of political institutions, instruments and rules interacting with each other can be very complex to understand for everybody anyways, communicating meanings via stories is way more promising for politicians.

Especially when it comes to presidential campaigning and electoral speeches, it’s essential to be able to mobilize as many people as possible. Therefore, it doesn’t take long to come across some good examples of storytelling, here current president of the United States, Donald Trump, serving as an example.

First of all, Trump knew his voter’s narrative almost perfectly: the hard working, white American with devotion for his motherland. He stands in line for the American Dream but always gets overtaken by others who cut in line, like immigrants, who would steal their work and wives (Callahan and Polletta, 2017).

Choosing a story also provides a high recognition factor as well as a powerful slogan: by promising to “Make Amerika great again”, Trump is also promising to get back what the devoted American has finally deserved: being the first in line, therefore putting his country and the economy first. His speeches are packed with antagonistic relationships, imposing an us-versus-them dialectic by introducing “enemies” who threaten his mission (D’Adamo, 2017).

Repeatedly, Trump illustrates the threats to his country in numerous speeches, using a very powerful metaphor: he recites the Snake Poem, which deals with a woman being bitten by a snake after she took good care of it. The snake is supposed to symbolize immigrants, and Trump identifies himself, his voters and the country with the woman (Washington Post, 2018).

What do we take from this?

What stands out is, firstly, that information is filtered and affected by people’s personal narrative- their view of the world around them. Secondly, humans are not only rational, but also emotional beings who need to engage with information on an emotional level. In a nutshell: your communication has to be consistent with your desired communication outcome. To reach people, it’s not about making up a story, it’s about finding the stories that need to be heard.

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