Monday, March 5, 2007


I came across this video of a lecture about how storytelling is important for nonprofits thanks to PART, a blog about transliteracy . The speaker's major points are that

  1. Storytelling is a fundamental tool human brains understand information (He uses statistical and anecdotal evidence for this)
  2. American society and governance relies on 4 archtypical stories
  3. Non-profit orgs. should learn to tell stories much better, and
  4. A story consists of three main parts - a character with a goal, obstacles to his/her achievement, and a payoff at the end.

The idea that there are a few foundational stories, which different groups emphasize in different proportions depending on their goals, is very similar to George Lakoff's framing argument in Don't think of an elephant

I bring it up for a few different reasons. Its a great lecture, for one thing. Watching lectures online is one of my new favorite things to do. (I'm pretty cool, after all) He is entertaining and thought provoking. He mixes narrative with declarations about the way things work and employs humor well, of self-deprecating and other varieties.

And storytelling is a form of communication that social activists will do well to cultivate. Many, including Lakoff and Reich have made the point that the left has lost much of its ability or dispostion to tell compelling stories. I am certainly no storyteller, and my tendency to talk about my intellectual goals, ideas, and principles in academic terms (i.e., talking about them explicitly as goals, ideas and principles) has certainly made it hard to share my passion for them with others. Its a difficult lesson to learn - that the way to communicate abstract ideas is indirectly.

This points to what many like me might consider to be a limitation of 'storytelling' and the kind of communication it represents. Storytelling, or communicating anecdotal examples of larger ideas, doesn't really even claim to be exhaustive and precise. If we want to talk about poverty, academic language will try to engage the whole issue, naming parts of it, identifying trends, patterns, flows of behavior, money and information. It will try to identify different kinds of poverty, state causes, and in general try to be as specific and explicit about the issue as possible. A story will not be explicit. A story might be about a poor person, and his or her life. All those elements about causes and repercussions and nuances should be in a good story, but they will not be named. The listener or reader must search for them.

And there is a major limitation with stories. Their power is their emotional appeal, but there also is the danger. A story can hide its misleading picture of reality through pandering to emotional appeal. Or because a story's meaning comes from the listener's understanding of its content, one story will deliver multiple meanings to different listeners. (But this happens with academic work too)

Also, writing a good story requires understanding all those things that academic language names. The left's problem is that it relies too heavily on academic understanding of problems, leading to facts that others cannot share easily. The problem of the right is that it relies too heavily on stories. It denies that what might appeal to intuition in a story might not actually be true in the real world. Both errors are dangerous.

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