In a CBS News interview with Charlie Rose on Thursday, President Obama said his biggest mistake as president so far has been not telling enough stories:
“When I think about what we’ve done well and what we haven’t done well, the mistake of my first term — couple of years — was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right. And that’s important. But the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.”
The President confirmed what many communicators already know; placing human faces and stories on social issues is one of the most effective methods for persuading audiences — indeed a country — to support and even create change.
As demonstrated in the Oscar-winning 2010 film “The King’s Speech,” effective communication is an essential part of leadership. Through personal testimony or the accounts of others, storytelling can clarify social issues, improve message comprehension and yes, inspire action.
Crafting a great story is not just a challenge for Obama and other policymakers, but an important skill for communicators. Describing complicated social issues — such as health, education, sustainable agriculture and environmental conservation — through this medium adds a human dimension to topics that might otherwise be viewed as too dense to engage. A great human story can draw audiences into an issue and help them see the connection to their own lives. Storytelling is as much as a ”show them” approach as a “tell them” approach.
Communicators’ key to success is finding the right story that will be relevant to the audiences we are trying to reach. Remember Senator John McCain telling the story of Joe the Plumber during the 2008 presidential election? There is a “Joe the Plumber” story out there for every issue, and it’s important for communicators not only to find the best one, but to share it accurately and in a culturally competent way.