Spinning on the Stump

One of the late President Ronald Reagan’s favorite stories concerned the meeting of two men, one from the USA, the other a Soviet citizen.

“In my country,” said the American, “I can walk right into the Oval Office and say that I don’t like the way Ronald Reagan is running the United States.”

“I can do that with Gorbachev, too,” replied the Soviet.

Having heard about Soviet repression, the American was incredulous. “You’ve got to be kidding!” he said.

“Not at all,” replied the Soviet. “I can walk right into Gorbachev’s office and say, ‘I don’t like the way Ronald Reagan is running the United States!’”

In our cynical age, you might readily agree that politicians make great storytellers. After all, a common definition of “storyteller” is liar. But even the most jaded observers of politicians know that storytelling has long been a powerful tool for persuasion.

The classical rhetoricians of ancient Greece used both the introduction narrative and the parable to pump up their speeches in the first democracy. You saw the introduction narrative – an anecdotal lead-in at the beginning of a speech to rouse interest – in the example above. In contrast, parables are anecdotal narratives that appear anywhere within a speech in order to teach a moral lesson.

In both cases, stories are used to connect with the audience, engage the emotions, and provide a concrete example of the abstract ideas the speaker wishes to put forth. What’s more, studies show that people remember, and may therefore share, information more effectively when it is presented through story. Compare the impersonal use of numbers and statistics with the specificity of people and experiences, and you can see why stories are so effective.

The Great Communicator
Ronald Reagan was known as the Great Communicator, in large part because of his stories. Reagan’s storytelling talent is legendary, writes former U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz in the foreword to Stories in His Own Hand: The Everyday Wisdom of Ronald Reagan.

“He peppered his conversations with stories,” Shultz writes. “Stories lent a certain informality and ease to his speeches. He used stories to increase his rapport with the people in front of him or on the other end of the television camera…. The stories always made a point and gave drama and emphasis to the content of his speeches. He reached for stories that people could comprehend because they could imagine themselves being in the same position.”

The book’s editors go on to note that when Reagan would say, “Well, that reminds me of…,” listeners were wise to pay close attention rather than to dismiss the story as a way of avoiding or changing the subject. Reagan referred to actual occurrences, folklore and jokes to make serious points. By causing us to laugh at the very serious limitations on free speech in the former Soviet Union, for example, Reagan sought to underscore the differences between the U.S. system and theirs in a memorable way.

Along with sharing brief anecdotes, there is another, more indirect way in which politicians use stories. In Tales of a New America, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert B. Reich identified four main storylines reflected in political discourse. Unlike distinct stories, you can’t necessarily identify one of these intact in the middle of a speech. Rather, they are the underlying, implied stories by which politicians operate. Writing in the mid-1980s, Reich identified the basic American storylines as:

1. The Benevolent Community: We take care of our own.
2. Mob at the Gates: We must protect ourselves against outside enemies.
3. Rot at the Top: We can’t trust the political and business elite.
4. Triumph of the Individual: Each of us can do anything we put our minds to.

We can still see the outlines of these stories in the rhetoric of American politicians as they discuss such issues as education, immigration, big government and affirmative action.

Why is it so important to recognize storytelling in politics? Once we understand how political storytelling works, we can be on the lookout for it – both in the words of others and in our own. We can ask ourselves, How does the story affect the message of the speech, as well as the credibility of the speaker? Does the listener feel manipulated or enlightened?

Following are a few classic examples of political storytelling, in speeches given by politicians the world over during the last century: 

Winston Churchill, Great Britain
On May 13, 1901, Winston Churchill, who went on to become Prime Minister, gave a speech to the British House of Commons in which he argued against increased government funding for the British Army. To reinforce his point, he told a story about the time when his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, then Secretary of the Treasury, was locked in political battle with the government – also over an issue of funding.

The language is a bit flowery, but the story stands out loud and clear: 

The Government of the day threw their weight on the side of the great spending Departments, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer [Churchill’s father] resigned. The controversy was bitter, the struggle uncertain, but in the end the Government triumphed, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer went down for ever, and with him, as it now seems, there fell also the cause of retrenchment and economy, so that the very memory thereof seems to have perished, and the words themselves have a curiously old-fashioned ring about them.

Churchill uses a historical anecdote about his father to contribute to his own credibility and to make a comparison between the situation then and what was happening at the time of his speech.

Mahatma Gandhi, India
Gandhi, a lawyer, became a famous proponent of non-violence as he led the successful Indian protest against the British occupation, or Raj. In a 1916 speech he said:

I was talking the other day to a member of the much-abused Civil Service. I have not very much in common with the members of that Service, but I could not help admiring the manner in which he was speaking to me. He said: “Mr. Gandhi, do you for one moment suppose that all we Civil Servants are a bad lot, that we want to oppress the people whom we have come to govern?” “No,” I said. “Then if you get an opportunity, put in a word for the much-abused Civil Service.”

The recital of a conversation with an anonymous representative – whether real or imagined – of a group is a common technique of politicians. Interestingly, Gandhi followed up this story without fulfilling the request to put in a good word for the Civil Service! 

Anwar Sadat, Egypt
On May 16, 1971, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat gave a speech to a delegation of police officers, and he told a story about a time he and his predecessor, the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser, had met at Sadat’s home. Nasser was still the president then:

President Nasser intended to ask the people’s permission to retire, and allow new leaders to take over in his [lifetime]...We all laughed and wondered who that successor would be and how the people would start comparing him to Nasser... I convey to the people the anxious words which Gamal Abdel Nasser said on that day: “I do not want my successor to humiliate the people.” He said this with emotion: “No one will humiliate the people after me.”

Here President Sadat used the popular technique of having a statesman “speak from the grave” on his behalf in order to make the point that Sadat’s first priority was to protect his people, even when he is no longer in power.

Hillary Clinton, United States
On October 11, 2007, during Clinton’s campaign for the presidential nomination, the New York senator told the following story in a speech about the affordability of education:

Back when I went to college, my late father said to me that he’d saved enough money – he was a small-business man – to pay for room, board and tuition, but if I wanted to buy a book or anything else, I had to earn the money. That was our deal. That was fine with me.

Then I graduated from college, and I decided I wanted to go to law school. So I told my father, and he said, “That’s not part of the deal.”

So I had to get a little scholarship, and I had to keep working. But then I borrowed money. And I borrowed money from the federal government. I borrowed it, as I recall, at something like two percent interest. It did not bankrupt me. It did not cause me to have to take a job on Wall Street. Instead, I got to do what I wanted to do.

This is an example, used as well by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, of reaching back to a youthful experience to demonstrate personal knowledge of a given topic. 

Storytelling as Political Propaganda
While these techniques of persuasion may seem relatively benign, there are numerous ways in which political storytelling can seriously mislead and manipulate listeners, with often horrific results. Both Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich and its predecessor, the Weimar Republic, reworked old German fairy tales such as “Sleeping Beauty” to reflect their anti-Semitic agenda. In many countries, women’s rights are curtailed due to cultural beliefs and local folklore saying a woman’s place is in the home. And because the prevailing storyline of the American South for 350 years was that Africans were less than human, slavery was considered perfectly moral.

So try to learn from history. Storytelling, like any other powerful tool, can be used both by the power elite and the opposition – for good or evil. It is our obligation, both as speakers and as voters, to recognize when it’s being used, and to use it responsibly in our own speeches. 

Caren S. Neile, Ph.D., CL, directs the South Florida Storytelling Project at Florida Atlantic University, where she teaches storytelling. A member of West Boca Toastmasters, she has presented at two Toastmasters International Conventions. She can be reached at cneile@fau.edu