When ‘Tell a Story’ Doesn’t Work

“Tell a story.” That seems to be the marketing advice du jour, and is usually very effective. There are times, however, when it misses the mark, and I was reminded of that last night watching the State of the Union.

The State of the Union speech, and the Response to the State of the Union (a ridiculous notion if ever there was one), are an exercise in marketing communications. The President has programs to sell to the nation and Congress, and the opposition has a different view to sell. “Tell a story” advice seems perfectly suited to these two speeches, and both President Bush and Senator Webb took the advice. Why was it, then, that I dreaded the moment when the President would start to tell the stories of the “citizen heroes” in the gallery? Was I the only one who cringed when Senator Webb pulled out the photo of his father? The speakers were telling stories, but they just didn’t work. Why?

The answer, I think, is that the stories were too specific; too anecdotal. It’s pretty clear that a politician can find an example or two to “prove” just about any point he wants to make. Doing so in a speech simply confirms that the speaker fits the politician stereotype and becomes embarrassing, not probative. A story I would want to hear would be broader and more extensible. Don’t tell me about a woman who started a $200mm company, tell me about a entrepreneurship program that helped 50 laid off workers start their own companies. Don’t tell me about a student from an inner city school who went on to college, tell me about an education program that enabled hundreds of inner city students to graduate from college.

One last point should be obvious – if you’re going to tell a story, tell one that proves your point. In his Response last night, drawing a parallel to the War in Iraq, Senator Webb told the story of President Eisenhower, who entered office pledging to end the Korean War and soon did so. In telling the story, however, the Senator seemed oblivious to the fact that North Korea, which was left intact by the Korean War armistice, is now one of the major sources of instability in the world. Stories can be very powerful, but only when they support your message..

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