The NCSL Blog


By Lesley Kennedy

Nashville—Want to change a person’s mind? Connect with someone on a different level? Find common ground? It’s time to work on your story-telling skills.

story telling session road to nowhere podcast ncsl “Everyone has a foundational story—things that they believe,” says Donna Washington, a professional storyteller and author. “And if you throw facts at them, their brain sends off the same hormonal signals as fight or flight. Which is why when you have a political discussion with someone who doesn’t necessarily agree with you, it either ends up in a screaming fight or someone walks away.”

But Washington, who spoke to a standing-room-only crowd at Wednesday’s Legislative Summit session “The Power of Story,” moderated by NCSL Executive Director Tim Storey, says stories can get around those reactions.

“If you pick the right story, you can change an entire group of people,” she says.

They also build communities. “And the second you build community with someone, you can begin to talk to them across and through that community,” Washington says.

Benjamin Sawyer, co-host of “The Road to Now” podcast and instructor of history at Middle Tennessee State University, says finding those communal stories isn’t as hard as you may think.

Listen to the 'The Road to Now' Podcast Live from the Session

“We, as human beings, have this amazing ability to take ourselves, and put ourselves, in other people’s shoes,” he says. “… As Americans, we have so much in common—we care about human rights, we care about values, we care about family, we care about being safe.”

Even so, Sawyer adds, we often find ourselves at odds over issues. “But if you sat down across from a person and started talking about how much you loved your family, I’ll bet they’d they get it,” he says. “How much you love your kids, how much your friends mean to you. … If you think about this from the perspective of, ‘I’m looking at another human being, I’m looking at a fellow American,’ wherever you can find that common ground, you find yourself in the same story and suddenly you’re on the same side.”

Not only can they put you on the same side, says Bob Crawford, co-executive director of the Press On Fund, co-host of “The Road to Now” podcast and bassist of the Avett Brothers band, but stories can also change people’s hearts.

Crawford says we’re at a moment in history where the 24-hour news cycle means we can listen to a certain narrative depending on which channel we’re tuned into and what that channel’s bias may be.

“Something I’ve been thinking a lot about is, where do we see our historical moment in our culture?” he says. “Where is it being reflected? Almost everything I watch I now or any new song I hear, or movie I go to see, I’m looking for the hints of our cultural moment in the art.”

And you must realize all people come to a story with their own images, ideas and experiences, according to Washington. Take the word “robin.” Does it make you think of Robin Hood? A person you know named Robin? A red bird? The slang word, “robbin’—as in to take things?” she asked.  

“I said one word and you all saw differences,” she says. “… In today’s media, you are capable of watching one thing that tells you the same story you always believed over and over and over. You have to go out of your way to listen to other people. And that is the key to this. That is the big thing when we talk about story: You must learn to listen.”

So, what makes a great story? Washington says it does three things: It creates a community base so everyone can join the story. It makes you consider your own person, thoughts and biases. And it makes you think about the world you are living in just a little bit differently.

But, with so much noise coming from so many sources today, how can you make your own stories really resonate in a time of seemingly shorter and shorter attention spans?  

You must know who you’re talking to, Washington says.

“You can hold anybody’s attention as long as you’re actually talking to them,” she says. “… Attention span only is a problem when you’re not talking to the people in front of you.”

And remember, Crawford advises, stories are the individual narratives that connect us to one another.

“We need to understand that everyone else has their own narrative they’re living and if you can tell a story that brings us all together?” he says. “You’ve got a good story.”

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Lesley Kennedy is NCSL’s director of digital communications.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.