summit 2022 storytelling donna washington

“Your job is to take us into the future,” storyteller Donna Washington says.

Great Stories Include Origin, Motivation, Vision … And Maybe a Few Cartoons

By Lesley Kennedy | Aug. 10, 2022 | State Legislatures News | Print

Perhaps all good speeches should begin with a little “Schoolhouse Rock!”

As soon as master storyteller Donna Washington began singing snippets from the cartoon favorite like “We the People,” “I’m Just a Bill” and “Elbow Room,” she had the room smiling and singing right along with her during a 2022 NCSL Legislative Summit general session titled “Using Great Stories for the Greater Good.”

Stories are not about facts. Stories aren’t even about reality. Stories are about images and emotions. —Donna Washington, master storyteller

“Whenever you are trying to tell a story to a large group of people and you don’t know where they came from, what they just did, what state they came from, start with something that includes everybody,” she says. “Stories are not about facts. Stories aren’t even about reality. Stories are about images and emotions.”

To prove her point, Washington started singing lyrics from the popular animated series that started in the ’70s in the middle of telling a story, and instantly, the audience was jamming along.

“Stories make us want to join each other,” she says. “They make us want to be part of things.”

 And, Washington adds, every good story is about the people listening to it. “So, what I do as a storyteller is I stop the story every now and again and I give you something to hold onto,” she says, referring to the cartoon songs. “You have an emotional response to it, and then we go on to the next thing. … And now we’re all on the same page. We create a little community. And I went through the process of making sure everyone in the room could come with me. That is what storytelling does.”

Translating Stories Into Good Governance

If you talk to your constituents using language that feels really good but doesn’t go anywhere, then you are not using stories that will translate into good governance.

“Good governance happens when stories you are telling have actual plans behind them,” she says, adding, “the more inclusive your language, the more people who might be able to hear you.”

She shared three types of storytelling often used in politics:

  1. Origin story: Who am I? Tell your own personal story, sure. But if you really want to reach people and bring them in, Washington recommends learning the stories of your constituents.
  2. Motivation: Why am I doing this? Share stories and plans that are actionable. “When your stories are actionable you can accomplish a lot of things across party lines.”
  3. Vision: What is my long-term vision going forward? “Your job is to take us into the future,” she says. “To govern us. Your job is to see where we can go.”

“The stories you tell us over and over and over are the stories we internalize,” Washington says, “and if I follow you and I am voting for you and I believe in you, I am listening to the stories you tell and … I’m all in for you.”

Lesley Kennedy is a director in NCSL’s Communications Division.

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