How Government Can Benefit from Becoming Better Storytellers

Most politicians fail to communicate the importance of policies to the public because they lack skills in the art of the anecdote.
March 2015
Flickr/ Loren Javier
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

When our now 20-something son was in high school, he announced that he learned best when he was being “entertained.” Into our minds popped visions of history being taught by a man on stilts, and physics lessons being sung to the tune of “The Impossible Dream.” We were dubious.

It’s only now that we’ve begun to understand what he was talking about -- and that he’s very much in line with a significant trend in government. Simple statements of fact supplemented by statistics isn’t enough when communicating with the public. Storytelling is the key to getting a message across not only to the public, but also to managers, legislators and public-sector employees.

As we mentioned in a prior column, Greg Burris, city manager of Springfield, Mo., is a major advocate of this line of thinking. When he first arrived at his current job about six years ago, his city was the object of derision thanks to deep financial troubles. But he saw lots of good things going on in the city -- things that were unrecognized by the public. “So we studied storytelling,” he says. He brought in the head of the theater program at Missouri State University to work with 23 department chiefs and the city’s leadership team. He also brought in David Harrison, a children’s book author who was asked to identify the elements of a good story and to help train the city’s leadership.

The net result of those efforts is that Springfield is finally reaching the public on a variety of important topics. “You don’t want to just show up on the front page when you need something,” says Burris. “That had typically been the case here and elsewhere.”

A good story can rise above the “noise and bombardment of new technologies,” says Jay Geneske, who directs the Rockefeller Foundation’s digital strategy. “Stories help make ideas more concrete.” As he explains it, there’s a narrative arc to a story that is personal and human, particularly when it’s about the impact of an action. This is far truer than is the case with dry statistics.

Simple data -- no matter how well it’s communicated -- is devoid of the kind of emotional content that sticks in people’s minds. Jennifer LaFleur, senior editor for data journalism at the Center for Investigative Reporting, says she sees some governments putting up data without context, without any sense of why the data matters or how it affects people directly. “Making it more accessible,” she says, “helps to reach more people and makes the text more readable.”

These ideas have been around for a while, but they are gaining growing acceptance. Consider Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s 2014 State of the State address. After a series of impressive statistics he went on to say, “Now, I talk about a lot of numbers, but I also want to make sure everyone realizes we’re talking about real people and their lives here. And so as we go through this, I’m going to share a story occasionally.” That’s exactly what he did, and the speech gained power and persuasion when he got to the stories behind the figures.

Marshall Ganz is a senior lecturer in public policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.* According to his biography, he "teaches, researches and writes on leadership, organization and strategy in social movements, civic associations and politics." That certainly covers a lot of ground. But here's the cool part: Ganz teaches a course called "public narrative," which his syllabus says engages the head and the heart. He also notes that "narrative can instruct and inspire -- teaching us not only why we should act but moving us to act."

As with all good ideas, there’s a potential land mine in using stories to communicate about public policy issues. It’s one that journalists also encounter every day. A single powerful story about a real human being may help move people to support an action, but it may also be misleading. A good yarn that isn’t representative of what’s happening in the world can lead to bad policies. This is why the phrase “purely anecdotal evidence” is often used with derision.

The key is to avoid stories that are little more than exciting, dramatic, humanizing outliers. “Outliers,” says Michael Quinn Patton, founder of Utilization-Focused Evaluation, “make for bad legislative policy and yet that goes on all the time.”

Patton counsels that an individual anecdote should be used only if there’s evidence that it is one of a range of well-researched stories that make the same point. “People may say that’s only one anecdote,” he adds, “but it’s representative of a pattern found in a number of other stories.”

One final note, for those readers who have read through the entirety of this column: The first and third paragraphs were both stories.

*Correction: A previous version of this story confused Harvard professor Michael Ganz with Harvard professor Marshall Ganz. The copy has been updated to correct that mistake.