summit storytelling sawyer washington storey 2021

History professor Ben Sawyer, left, and author Donna Washington took the stage at the Legislative Summit to discuss the power of storytelling with NCSL’s Tim Storey.

The Key to Finding Common Ground? Share Your Stories.

By Lesley Kennedy | Nov. 12, 2021 | State Legislatures News | Print

In the world of legislatures and politics, we often hear about how divided we are: Red and blue. Rural and urban. Rich and poor. Black and white.

“So, when we’re being constantly divided, what’s the magic to bringing people together who may think very differently about where this country and where states should go?” Tim Storey, NCSL chief executive officer, asked a panel during a popular Legislative Summit session titled “How to Tell a Great Story.”

In a nutshell: It’s sharing our stories.

“Stories create community,” said Donna Washington, an award-winning professional storyteller and author. “They make a place for all of us to find a way to talk to each other—not at each other or over each other or through each other. And they do it by bringing us all to the same place so we can find a way to talk to each other. And that’s why they’re important: They connect us to each other in a way that nothing else can.”

Stories create community. They make a place for all of us to find a way to talk to each other—not at each other or over each other or through each other. —Storyteller Donna Washington

Ben Sawyer, a history professor at Middle Tennessee State University and co-host of “The Road to Now” podcast, said stories also help make sense of a complicated world.

“I think a good story is one that begins with a premise that everyone can jump on board with,” he said. “You have to have a story that not only has a shared origin, but you have to connect that shared origin with a possible future, and the more seamless that can be in the way you tell a story, the more likely you are to sway people to your side.”

Washington agreed a good storytelling technique is to start at a common place.

“When you are trying to tell a story that reaches people, it doesn’t matter what the people look like, it doesn’t matter where the people are,” she said. “We can have empathy and connect to people who are really different from us because they are human, but also if they have shared understanding of something.”

That idea brought up the concept of the American story.

“We’re this nation of 340 million people, 50 states, hundreds of communities, every background—and that is what is great about America,” Storey said. “What does the American story mean and why does it matter?”

Sawyer said it’s important to note people see things in different ways and that the narratives drawn throughout history are often a simplification of events.

“They leave things out and they have to and that’s effective sometimes,” he said. “But the reality is every story has its silences and every story has its noises. What we say and what we don’t say are equally as powerful a lot of times. And a lot of times, what you need to know about history is that we’re always learning new things.”

Honest Stories

He said telling honest stories about the United States is not an attempt at rewriting history.

“If we don’t continue to adapt and understand our story to include new people in that story, then we lose out on things and we are constantly divided,” he said. “If we don’t listen to the things that other people see that we don’t, we miss out.”

Answering a question from the audience about improving one-on-one communication, especially with folks across the aisle, Washington said it’s important to tell co-workers stories about yourself.

“If you’re going to do the business of politics you have to have a relationship first,” she said. “When you learn other people’s stories, it’s hard to hate them and it’s hard to fight them.”

And, Sawyer said, be sure to ask others questions about their own stories in good faith and then really listen to the answers.

“I think asking questions is an act of showing love—I care about what you have to say,” he said. “And I think when you do that it disarms people because I think most people just want to tell other people what’s going on.”

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

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